The rates of three sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis — have skyrocketed in the U.S., according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Jose Bazan, an associate professor of clinical internal medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the spike in STD rates is “alarming.”
The new Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, which looked at data from 2017-2018, reveals concerning increases in the three most commonly reported STDs in the U.S., marking a dramatic turn. “Yet not that long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and we were able to point to advances in STD prevention, such as better chlamydia diagnostic tests and more screening, contributing to increases in detection and treatment of chlamydial infections,” Gail Bolan, MD, director of the division of STD Prevention at the CDC, wrote in the foreword of the report. “That progress has since unraveled.”
What you need to know about these STDs
Chlamydia, which often has no symptoms, is the most commonly reported STD in the U.S., with 1.8 million cases. Rates of chlamydia have gone up by 19 percent since 2014. The highest rates of reported chlamydia cases in 2018 were among those 20–24 years old, followed by teens 15-19 years old.
For gonorrhea, there are 583,405 cases in the U.S., and rates have gone up 63 percent since 2014. Gonorrhea is marked by burning or painful urination, as well as white, yellow or green discharge from the penis or increased vaginal discharge. Reported rates of the disease are highest in adolescents and young adults, specifically men and women aged 20-24 years old, according to the CDC report.
With syphilis, there are 35,063 cases of primary and secondary syphilis in the U.S. Primary syphilis is marked by a sore or sores at the site of infection, while signs of secondary syphilis include a skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever, per the CDC. Rates of syphilis have increased 71 percent since 2014, and are highest in men and women 25-29 years old.
But what’s even more concerning are the reported rates of congenital syphilis — when an infected mother passes syphilis to her baby during pregnancy — which have shot up by 185 percent since 2014, with 1,306 cases in the U.S. CDC’s Bolan noted in a statement that 94 newborns died from congenital syphilis in 2018, calling it “the most alarming threat.” “In addition to newborn death,” Bolan added, “congenital syphilis can result in miscarriage or severe lifelong physical and neurological problems for the child.”
The report also noted that certain states have higher STD rates than others. For chlamydia, Alaska, along with the District of Columbia, have the highest rates in the nation, while West Virginia has the lowest rates. Mississippi and the District of Columbia have the highest rates of gonorrhea, while Vermont has the lowest. The District of Columbia and Nevada have the highest syphilis rates, while Vermont has the lowest.
Although most states reported at least one case of congenital syphilis (the type that’s passed from mother to baby during pregnancy), five states – Texas, California, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana – make up 70 percent of all cases in the U.S., according to the report.
Why STD rates are so high right now
So what’s going on? The CDC data show that there are several factors behind these rising STD rates. “These include cuts to STD programs at the state and local levels,” Michael Cackovic, an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Over 50 percent of these local programs have experienced budget cuts resulting in clinic closures, reduced screenings, and inability to pursue patient follow-up.”
Other factors include increased drug use, poverty, and unstable housing, which Cackovic says leads to at-risk behaviors. Bazan also notes a decrease in condom use among at-risk patients, which has been linked to the rise in STDs.
There are also some people who underestimate their chances of getting infected. “Many individuals believe that STDs won’t happen to them, that they can identify potential at-risk partners, and if contracted, that they can be cured with a quick dose of antibiotics,” says Cackovic, who notes that many don’t realize the potential to transmit these infections, even if they do not have symptoms.
What can people do to prevent the spread of STDs?
First, get tested. “The most important first step that people take is to go get tested and be open with their healthcare provider about specific behaviors that can put them at risk for STDs,” says Bazan. He explains that specific behaviors can put people at risk for STDs, such as having multiple sex partners, sex while using drugs, or not using protection such as condoms in non-monogamous relationships.
He adds: “Providers need to ask all the appropriate questions in a sensitive and non-judgmental manner so patients feel safe and comfortable discussing issues related to STDs and sexual health. Providers also need to follow the most current STD screening and treatment guidelines provided by the CDC.”
Cackovic recommends condom use to reduce the risk of infection. To help lower the rates of congenital syphilis, he points out that it’s especially important for expectant mothers to be screened as part of good prenatal care to “help reduce this burden to the newborn.”
If left untreated, STDs can have several negative health consequences. “For example, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women, which in turn can lead to ectopic pregnancy, infertility, and chronic pelvic pain,” says Bazan. “Syphilis can involve basically any organ in the body and can cause meningitis, blindness, and hearing loss, among many other things. Pregnant women with syphilis can also pass the infection to their unborn babies, which can result in stillbirth and congenital syphilis.”
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