USNews is reporting a skyrocketing rise in cases of some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) – including a 26% increase in new syphilis infections reported in 2021 – prompting U.S. health officials to call for new prevention and treatment efforts.
“It is imperative that we…work to rebuild, innovate, and expand (STD) prevention in the U.S.,” said Dr. Leandro Mena of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a speech Monday at a medical conference on sexually transmitted infections.
The infection rates of some sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, have been skyrocketing for years. Last year alone, the rate of syphilis infections reached an all-time high since 1991, and the total number of cases hit its highest since 1948. HIV infections are also rising, up to 16% in 2021.
And a global outbreak of monkeypox, a viral disease that can be spread between people (mainly men who have sex with other men) and people with certain animals, has further highlighted the country’s worsening problem with diseases primarily spread through sexual intercourse.
“the situation is out of control,” said David Harvey, the National Coalition of STD Directors’ executive director.
“Officials are working on new approaches to the problem, such as home-test kits for some sexually transmitted diseases that will make it easier for people to learn they are infected and to take steps to prevent spreading it to others,” Mena said.
Another expert said a core part of any efforts to manage the situation is to increase the use of condoms.
“It’s pretty simple. More sexually transmitted infections occur when people are having more unprotected sex,” said Dr. Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that surfaces as painless sores – typically on the genitals, rectum, or mouth – but can ultimately lead to severe symptoms and death if left untreated.
New syphilis infections dropped in the U.S. in the 1940s when antibiotics became widely available. They plummeted even further by 1988 when fewer than 7,000 new cases were reported nationwide. The CDC was so encouraged by this progress that it launched a plan to eliminate syphilis in the United States.
But by 2002, syphilis infections started rising again, primarily among gay and bisexual men, and they just kept going. In late 2013, the CDC ended its elimination campaign in the face of limited resources and skyrocketing cases, which surpassed 17,000 that year.
By 2020, cases had reached nearly 41,700 and spiked even further last year to over 52,000.
The rate of reported cases has been skyrocketing, too, hitting about 16 per 100,000 people last year. That’s the highest in 30 years.
Rates are highest in men who engage in intercourse with men and among Black and Hispanic Americans and Native Americans. While the rate for women is lower than that for men, officials noted that it’s been rising more dramatically – by 50% last year.
“That ties to another problem — the rise in congenital syphilis, in which infected moms pass the disease on to their babies, potentially leading to the death of the child or health problems like deafness and blindness. Annual congenital syphilis cases numbered only about 300 a decade ago; they surged to nearly 2,700 last year. Of last year’s tally, 211 were stillbirths or infant deaths,” Mena said.
Experts say that the sharp rise in syphilis and other sexually transmitted disease cases might have several causes.
Testing and prevention efforts have been faltered by years of inadequate funding, and the spread might have worsened – especially during the pandemic – due to delayed diagnosis and treatment. Drug and alcohol use might have also contributed to risky sexual behavior. Condom use has been decreasing.
There might have also been a surge in sexual activity as people emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns. “People are feeling liberated,” Saag said.
The monkeypox breakout added a significantly huge burden. The CDC recently sent a letter to state and local health departments saying their HIV and STD resources could be used in the fight against monkeypox. However, some experts say the government should provide more funding for STD work, not divert it.
David Harvey’s group and other public health organizations are pushing a proposal for additional federal funding, including at least $500 million for STD clinics.
Dr. Mena, who became director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention last year, called for “reducing stigma, broadening screening and treatment services, and supporting the development and accessibility of at-home testing.”
“I envision one day where getting tested (for STDs) can be as simple and as affordable as doing a home pregnancy test,” he said.