The test results are in and it’s not a clean bill of health for the US. Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday have revealed what’s been described as an “out of control” epidemic of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the country.
The findings come from the CDC’s most recent annual STI surveillance report, which compiles data on reported infections in the US. According to the report, more than 2.5 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia were reported in the US in 2022.
Experts are particularly concerned by the number of reported cases of syphilis, which have shot up by 80 percent in the past five years. Syphilis can be picked up during vaginal, anal, or oral sex when someone comes into contact with syphilis sores, but can also be passed from a pregnant person to their unborn baby. This is called congenital syphilis and it’s a problem that experts are keen to highlight, with cases having increased by 937 percent over the course of a decade.
“Our nation is facing a rapidly deteriorating public health crisis with real lives at stake,” reads the response of the National Coalition of STD Directors to the report.
It’s a sentiment that’s well-supported by the data. “Nearly every state reported having at least one congenital syphilis case. Some states are feeling the impact more than others – Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana represented 57 percent of all reported congenital syphilis cases. Tragically, these infections resulted in 282 stillbirths and infant deaths in 2022,” writes Laura Bachmann, the CDC Acting Director for STD Prevention, in a statement.
Syphilis consists of three main stages, the first two of which are the most infectious and can be characterized by skin rashes and sores, with other symptoms including fever, aches, and fatigue. Though most untreated cases of syphilis don’t progress beyond this point, the infection can sometimes reach the tertiary stage; this can cause damage in multiple organs and lead to death.
However, syphilis can be curable with antibiotics, and if caught in the early stages of the infection, can prevent such serious or fatal damage. This may cause some to question why the US is now in the situation it’s in. Bachmann explains: “The STI field has reached a tipping point […] Recent public health emergencies diverted program resources and threatened the health of those already disproportionately affected by STIs.”
So what’s the answer? According to the CDC, collaboration.
“We are calling on all partners, particularly healthcare providers, to understand who should be tested for syphilis in their community, talk with patients about sexual health, treat patients and their partners immediately, and work with local and state health departments to improve syphilis management and access to care,” writes Bachmann.
“Every case is one too many when we have the tools to prevent it.”