STDs in the US are at a crisis point. On Monday, leading public health experts and government officials sounded the alarm over the annual increase in STDs. Preliminary data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia increased last year.
This week it’s the CDC and the National Coalition of STD Directors hosting its regular STD prevention conference, which takes place every two years and is virtual this year due to the covid-19 pandemic. But while the conference aims to highlight promising technological advances and initiatives, speakers were quick to point out that the current state is pretty grim.
“It is imperative that we… work to rebuild, innovate and expand [STD] prevention in the US,” Leandro Mena, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a speech Monday, according to the Associated Press. reports. In another speech, David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, went so far as to call the problem “out of control.”
Earlier this month, the CDC released preliminary 2021 figures from their ongoing STD surveillance data. There were at least 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in the United States in 2021, the top three STDs that doctors and local health departments are required to track and report (other serious STDs like HIV or hepatitis B are tracked as well, but their numbers are analyzedzed i reported elsewhere). These case counts are known to be an underestimate, as not all infections cause symptoms and many people do not get tested regularly for STDs.
Instances of chlamydia in 2021 (about 1.63 million cases) were slightly below their peak in 2019, but were higher than the 2020 total, and cases of gonorrhea and syphilis have continued to rise year-over-year . In 2021, 696,764 cases of gonorrhea were reported, along with 171,074 cases of syphilis. Rates and cases of congenital syphilis transmitted from mother to child in the womb have also increased, with 2,677 cases in 2021. These infections, which are completely preventable with a timely course of antibiotics, can lead to life-threatening complications life. At least 139 newborns died of syphilis in 2020.
Gonorrhea has its own set of unique challenges. Although the infections often do not cause illness and are very rarely life-threatening, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are quickly gaining resistance to the few first-line antibiotics that remain available to treat them. And without effective drugs, cases of gonorrhea will more often lead to serious complications such as infertility or blindness in newborns who contract the infection while in the womb.
If all that isn’t bad enough, 2022 has also seen the widespread global emergence of human smallpox. Although the viral disease can spread to others through any form of prolonged contact, the current epidemic is primarily transmitted through contact during sex, most often between men who have sex with men with multiple recent partners . The future of monkeypox is uncertain, but many experts fear it will become a novelty STDs of regular occurrence, although it can be managed with an effective vaccine and antiviral treatments.
In his speech, Mena argued that there are still measures that can be taken to reduce the incidence of STIs. These include reducing the stigma associated with STDs, educating and convincing people to adopt safe sex practices such as condoms, and making it easier and cheaper for people to get tested. An important way to improve testing, he added, would be the development of at-home tests, similar to those now widely available for covid-19 or pregnancy.
“I can imagine a day where I will take the test [for STDs] it can be as simple and as affordable as taking a home pregnancy test,” she said.