In its annual report released last week entitled “2016 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Surveillance,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had some disturbing statistics:
It is estimated that there are 20 million new STDs in the U.S. each year, and half of these are among young people ages 15 to 24 years. Across the nation, at any given time, there are more than 110 million total (new and existing) infections. These infections can lead to long-term health consequences, such as infertility; they can facilitate HIV transmission; and they have stigmatized entire subgroups of Americans.
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. That progress has since unraveled.
For those three sexually transmitted infections alone — chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — more than 2 million new cases were reported to the appropriate health departments in 2016. Sandee LaMotte says infections with chlamydia, which are frequently asymptomatic, were most numerous (1.6 million), followed by gonorrhea (470,000 new cases) and primary and secondary syphilis (28,000):
Only those three STDs are required by law to be reported to the CDC by physicians. When you include HIV, herpes and more of the dozens of diseases which can be transmitted sexually but which are not tracked, the CDC estimates there are more than 20 million new cases of STDs in the United States each year. At least half occur in young people ages 15 to 24.
“STDs are out of control with enormous health implications for Americans,” said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. The coalition represents state, local and territorial health departments who focus on preventing STDs.
“If not treated, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis can have serious consequences, such as infertility, neurological issues, and an increased risk for HIV,” said Harvey.
It’s not just sexually active people who are impacted by STDs. Infants have been particularly hard-hit by syphilis. In 2016, there were 628 new cases of congenital syphilis in newborns in the United States, with 40 deaths and severe health complications among the survivors.
What accounts for the rise of these completely preventable diseases? In addition to the fact that many infections result in few or no symptoms, STDs are a subject most patients don’t want to talk about, even to their doctors, because of the stigma attached to them. There are other reasons, too:
Bolan and Harvey both point to funding deficits as a huge part of the reason STDs are on the rise.
“Several factors are fueling the STD epidemic,” Harvey said. “Funding cutbacks for prevention, education and healthcare programs, an on-going debate about sex education for young people, with cutbacks in that arena, particularly from this administration, and a rise in social media dating apps have all contributed to the rise.”
Doctors have let down their guard. It’s time for us to be alarmed and step up and manage this embarrassing epidemic.