Reported sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have reached an all-time high after the latest statistics from 2019 saw cases rise for the sixth year in a row.
The newly released statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in 2019 – almost a 30 percent increase in these reportable STDs between 2015 and 2019.
One STD that's made a particularly unlikely (and unwelcome) comeback is syphilis. There was a point decades ago where the disease was on the verge of being eradicated in some parts of the world, but recent years have seen a startling comeback – some 129,813 cases in 2019, up 74 percent from 2015. Nearly half of syphilis cases in 2019 were among gay and bisexual men, while the year also saw a sharp rise in congenital syphilis among newborns, which increased by 291% between 2015 and 2019.
Symptoms of syphilis vary depending on which of the stages it presents, but it generally first appears as skin ulceration on the genitals, mouth, or anus called a chancre. It then progresses to cause sores and rashes over the body and, eventually, people with tertiary syphilis may experience meningitis, strokes, neurological problems, loss of coordination, and more. Fortunately, it can be treated with antibiotics.
However, antibiotics are starting to lose their grip on certain STDs. The new stats also explain that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, sometimes called “super-gonorrhea,” is at an all-time high. In 2019, more than half of all gonorrhea infections were estimated to be resistant to at least one antibiotic. Last year saw the prevalence of ciprofloxacin resistance reach up to 35.4 percent of the strains isolated.
The recent trends of STDs highlight some of the wider disparities that exist in the US, with rates of infection hitting racial and ethnic minority groups, gay and bisexual men, and youth the hardest. For instance, in 2019, the rate of STDs for Black people was 5 to 8 times that of non-Hispanic White people.
“Focusing on hard-hit populations is critical to reducing disparities,” Jo Valentine, MSW, associate director of the Office of Health Equity in CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a statement. “To effectively reduce these disparities, the social, cultural, and economic conditions that make it more difficult for some populations to stay healthy must be addressed. These include poverty, unstable housing, drug use, lack of medical insurance or regular medical provider, and high burden of STDs in some communities.”
It’s hard to predict where the statistics from 2020 may lead from 2019. Last year saw influenza and all manner of infectious diseases decline, most likely due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and greater emphasis on hygiene. Given the – ahem – intimate nature of sexual transmission, you might expect STDs to have declined during 2020 due to the months of social distancing. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic stretched healthcare systems across the world, resulting in reductions in STD screening, treatment, and prevention.
Either way, it appears unlikely the pandemic will reverse the tide of STDs. Like most aspects of healthcare, the CDC says COVID-19 will force us to drastically reconsider how we resource and approach STDs in the years to come.
“STDs will not wait for the pandemic to end, so we must rise to the challenge now,” said Raul Romaguera, acting director for CDC’s Division of STD Prevention.