Healthcare and disease prevention has been at the forefront of American minds since early 2019 when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the world. However, a separate crisis has gone chiefly ignored and underfunded — despite setting records in reported cases six consecutive years in a row. We’ve gone from unprecedented lows to concerning heights in STD rates in less than two decades.
Syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia increase by 30%
Looking at the numbers today, it’s hard to believe that many of the most commonly reported STDs were on the verge of being eliminated as healthcare threats.
“Less than 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates in the U.S. were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and advances in chlamydia diagnostics made it easier to detect infections,” states Raul Romaguera, DMD, MPH, the acting director for the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. “That progress has since unraveled, and our STD defenses are down. We must prioritize and focus our efforts to regain this lost ground and control the spread of STDs.”
The newest report, released by the CDC in 2019, shows staggering and worrisome trends regarding sexually transmitted infections. There were over 2.5 million reported chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis cases during this timeframe. This represents over a 30% increase in cases since 2015. More alarmingly, congenital syphilis rates (i.e., disease rates in newborns) have nearly quadrupled in that same period.
With the existing interruptions to healthcare access, and treatment and prevention services brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic dramatically reduced, those trends have likely accelerated in 2020 and 2021. Indeed, preliminary data for 2020 strongly indicate that the STD rate in America continues to worsen.
While almost all groups have experienced increased rates of STDs, it is overwhelmingly ethnic, cultural, and sexual minorities that have been adversely impacted. Gay and bisexual men alone make up a large portion of the affected, with almost half of all primary and secondary cases of syphilis affecting them. Furthermore, this demographic experienced forty-two times more chances of gonorrhea compared to heterosexual men in certain areas.
African-American and Black individuals reported sexually transmitted disease rates anywhere between five to eight times more common than non-Hispanic White people. Hispanic people, in turn, experienced rates up to twice as high as non-Hispanic White people, while American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders faced rates three to five times higher than non-Hispanic White people.
Two prevalent STDs also seem to predominantly target youths and young adults, with 61% of syphilis cases and 42% of gonorrhea cases affecting individuals between 15 and 24. While both are curable with proper and prompt treatment, the damages they do can be irreparable and last the remainder of the infected person’s lifetime.
Jo Valentine, MSW, the associate director of the Office of Health Equity in the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, warns that rapid changes in how we detect and treat diseases are necessary to serve these underrepresented communities, stating:
“Focusing on hard-hit populations is critical to reducing disparities. To effectively reduce these disparities, the social, cultural, and economic conditions that make it more difficult for some populations to stay healthy must be addressed. These include poverty, unstable housing, drug use, lack of medical insurance or regular medical providers, and high burden of STDs in some communities.”
STD clinics facing reduced funding amid rising infection cases
However, despite the warning to stay focused on screening for, treating, and preventing STDs such as HPV and others, the resources earmarked and available for clinics are sorely dwindling. The fact is, the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded an unprecedented amount of attention and funding from our healthcare institutes. Trained staff, accessible locations, and necessary equipment have been pulled away from other medical pursuits to ensure an adequate response to the novel coronavirus.
This means that at a time when STD infection rates are skyrocketing at record rates every year, the quality of care provided has demonstrably diminished. While the pandemic remains the most critical health issue affecting people worldwide, it is vitally important to raise awareness of STDs, their symptoms, determine who is most at risk, and identify which detection and treatment options are still available.
Being alert to the signs and symptoms of these STDs is vital for early detection and early treatment. If you experience any of the following: unusual genital discharge, lesions or sores, solid or unpleasant odors, itching, and inflammation, or pain and discomfort while urinating or engaging in sexual acts, those are clear warning signs that you may need testing and treatment.
However, some STDs can be asymptomatic, and others might not present symptoms until much later in the affected person’s life. For this reason, regular testing is recommended if you are sexually active, especially with new partners. If you have been struggling to find a discreet and accessible clinic, one often-overlooked option that is readily available, even during COVID-19, is an at-home STD test.
The importance of prevention cannot be overstated. By taking the time to educate those who these STDs may directly impact, we can ultimately help empower them to take charge of their health. And in turn, we can finally curtail the unspoken pandemic that has long been hidden in the shadow of the novel coronavirus.