Sexually transmitted diseases in the United States are at a critical point. On Monday, leading public health experts and government officials sounded the alarm over the continued annual rise in STDs. Preliminary data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia all increased last year.
This week, the CDC and the National Coalition of STD Directors are accommodation their 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 status quo is quite dire.
“It is imperative that we…work to rebuild, innovate and develop [STD] prevention in the United States,” Leandro Mena, director of the CDC’s STD Prevention Division, said in his 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 published preliminary figures for 2021 from its 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 (d Other serious STDs such as HIV or Hepatitis B are tracked as well, but their numbers are analyze and reported somewhere else). This number of cases is known to be underestimated because not all infections cause symptoms and many people are not regularly tested for STDs.
Chlamydia cases in 2021 (about 1.63 million cases) were slightly down from their 2019 peak, but were above the 2020 total, and gonorrhea and syphilis cases continued to climb year after year . There were 696,764 reported cases of gonorrhea in 2021, 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 entirely preventable with timely antibiotic treatment, can lead to complications potentially fatal. At least 139 newborns died of syphilis in 2020.
Gonorrhea has its own set of unique challenges. Although infections often do not cause illness and are very rarely life-threatening, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are rapidly gaining resistance to the few first-line antibiotics available to treat them. And without effective medication, cases of gonorrhea will more often lead to serious complications like infertility or blindness in newborns who acquire the infection in the womb.
If all of that isn’t enough, 2022 has also seen the widespread global emergence of human monkeypox. Although the viral disease can spread to others through any form of prolonged contact, the current outbreak is transmitted primarily through contact during sex, most often in men who have sex with men with multiple recent partners. . The future of monkeypox is uncertain, but many experts fear it could become a new STDs occurring regularly, but which can be managed with an effective vaccine and antiviral treatments.
In her speech, Mena argued that there are still steps that can be taken to reduce the incidence of STDs. These include reducing the stigma associated with STDs, educating and convincing people to adopt safer sex practices like condoms, and making testing easier and cheaper for people. An important way to improve testing, he added, would be the development of home tests, similar to those now widely available for covid-19 or pregnancy.
“I imagine a day when I get tested [for STDs] can be as simple and as affordable as taking a home pregnancy test,” he said.
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