Rates Of Syphillis, Chlamydia And Gonorrhea Rising For First Time Since 2006, Particularly Among Young People

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According to the CDC, STD rates are the highest they've ever been, prompting a renewed drive to promote safe sex practices and regular STD testing. Paul Keller. CC BY 2.0

There may never be a worse time than now to engage in unprotected sex, according to an report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It found that rates of the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea have all increased in the past year — a feat not seen of the three concurrently since 2006.

Overall, there were over 1.4 million cases of chlamydia reported in 2014, of which 1 million were found in women; around 350,000 cases of gonorrhea; and nearly 20,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis (the earliest and most infectious forms of the bacterial disease). These numbers represent a 2.8 percent, 5.1 percent, and 15.1 percent rise over 2013 rates, respectively.

Chlamydia remained the commonly reported notifiable disease in the United States, though it should be noted that other STDs like herpes and HPV are very common as well, if harder to keep track of. And of course, even the CDC rates are likely an underestimation of their true prevalence.

Most At Risk

Though each disease brings with it unique characteristics and challenges, the familiar trend in their rise is that of age, with those youngest and sexually active most at risk of harboring these three STDS. Worryingly, the report detected greater rates of gonorrhea in men, and greater increases of syphilis among women. 

Syphilis, however, remains primarily a problem among men who have sex with men (MSM), encompassing 83 percent of reported cases (when the sex of the partner is known). Fifty percent of MSM syphilis cases were also HIV-positive, highlighting a known but nonetheless frightening connection between the two STDs. It’s believed the sores commonly seen in syphilis make it easier for the HIV virus to be transmitted between partners.

“America’s worsening STD epidemic is a clear call for better diagnosis, treatment, and prevention,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, in a statement. “STDs affect people in all walks of life, particularly young women and men, but these data suggest an increasing burden among gay and bisexual men.” While syphilis is the only reportable STD that keeps track of a sufferer’s sexual orientation, it’s believed there is a similar rise among MSM for chlamydia and gonorrhea as well.

“A number of individual risk behaviors (such as higher numbers of lifetime sex partners), as well as environmental, social and cultural factors (such as higher prevalence of STDs or difficulty accessing quality health care) contribute to disparities in the sexual health of gay and bisexual men,” explained the CDC’s summary of their report. “For example, gay and bisexual men with lower economic status may have trouble accessing and affording quality healthcare, making it difficult to receive STD testing and other prevention services. Additionally, complex issues like homophobia and stigma can also make it difficult for gay and bisexual men to find culturally-sensitive and appropriate care and treatment.”

It wasn’t solely age, gender, and sexual orientation that predicted greater STD rates, but race as well. In particular, STD rates were highest in blacks across the board, though few minority groups fared better than whites, save Asians.

“The consequences of STDs are especially severe for young people,” added Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. “Because chlamydia and gonorrhea often have no symptoms, many infections go undiagnosed and this can lead to lifelong repercussions for a woman’s reproductive health, including pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.”

Because of these risks, the CDC recommends that sexually active women younger than 25 request annual chlamydia and gonorrhea tests; pregnant women obtain syphilis, HIV, chlamydia, and hepatitis B tests early on; and sexually active men who have sex with men undergo a battery of STD tests at least once a year, more if they’re especially a high-risk group.

Source: Braxton J, Carey D, Davis D, et al. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015.

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