Sexually transmitted infections like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia may sound like relics from another era of medicine, but according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, they are actually at their highest rates ever. In 2016 alone, more than 2 million new cases were reported of the three STIs, indicating a disturbing trend in public health.
And for some people, it can be more than just an infection, as STIs could be responsible for long-term health consequences like infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and ectopic pregnancy. On top of that, there’s still significant stigma surrounding STIs, which may prevent some from seeking medical attention or getting tested in the first place.
Because several STIs like chlamydia don’t have specific symptoms, they can be easy to miss — the only way to find out if you have the condition and not spread it to others is to get routinely tested yourself.
“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,” Dr. Gail Bolan, the director of the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC wrote in the report’s forward. “That progress has since unraveled.”
So what happened?
Budget cuts are playing a large role in the increase in STI rates. According to the CDC, in 2012, 52 percent of state and local STI programs had their funding cut, which resulted in reduced clinic hours and screening for common and treatable STIs, as well as the closing of 21 local health department clinics in 2016 alone.
Another contributing factor has been “a rise in social media dating apps have… contributed to the rise,” Dr. David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors told CNN.
There’s also the challenge of combating the mindset that certain STIs like syphilis are no longer a problem. To help with that, the CDC has also published a guide to assisting health care providers diagnose and treat these conditions and is creating a network of clinical training centers for physicians.
And as Bolan pointed out in the CDC report’s forward, STIs don’t just impact individuals’ and the public health — they are also costing the U.S. health care system a lot of money. In fact, the direct cost of treating STIs in America is nearly $16 billion each year.
The increase in STI rates has consequences far beyond someone getting some annoying genital warts. It also affects reproductive, maternal and infant health.
“The resurgence of syphilis, and particularly congenital syphilis, is not an arbitrary event, but rather a symptom of a deteriorating public health infrastructure and lack of access to health care,” Bolan wrote. “It is exposing hidden, fragile populations in need that are not getting the health care and preventive services they deserve. This points to our need for public health and health care action for each of the cases in this report, as they represent real people, not just numbers.”
Fortunately, your sexual health is one aspect of your wellness that you, for the most part, can control — so get tested, use protection and don’t be afraid to have these conversations with partners.