healthHealth and Medicine

Sexually Transmitted Disease Rates Reach New Record High In America


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Chlamydia cells, as revealed by a pap smear test. US Gov/Public Domain

Watch out, the sex diseases are coming to get you, America – specifically, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. For the third year in a row, infection rates for all three have increased.

According to the annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, authored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these three diseases surged to a record high in 2016, with more than 2 million new cases being declared nationwide. That’s about one in every 160 Americans, which is a lot considering that all three can be prevented from spreading through the correct use of a condom.


A large majority of the new cases were chlamydia (1.6 million), with gonorrhea coming in second (470,000) and syphilis in third (28,000). The incidences of all three increased across both sexes, but both gonorrhea’s and syphilis’ significant share increases (19 and 18 percent between 2015 and 2016, respectively) were largely detected in gay and bisexual men.

There were also 600 cases of syphilis among newborns, a 28 percent jump on the previous year. This is known as congenital syphilis, as the baby contracts it from their parents.

It’s worth remembering that these curable diseases aren’t harmless. Chlamydia, if left untreated, can lead to inflamed pelvic regions and infertility; gonorrhea can have a similar effect on fertility, as well as triggering premature labor and miscarriages in expectant mothers. Syphilis is worse, and can lead to tumors, blindness, paralysis, organ failure, neurological damage, and even death.

So this report, full of new ignominious records in the US, is nothing but bad news. To put it into context, let’s look at how the rest of the world is doing.

A 3D visualization of gonorrhea cells. photovapl/Shutterstock

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired every single day, with syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea being the top three. Although the data sets from plenty of countries are incomplete, evidence suggests that the global prevalence of these three, and many others, are the same as they were a decade ago.

America is the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation on Earth though, so the fact that it’s seeing STI rates for these three diseases increase at all is deeply concerning. Yes, the number of cases of these STIs are now magnitudes lower than they were back in the 1940s (when syphilis peaked) and the 1970s (when gonorrhea peaked), but on paper, these numbers should still be declining.

So why is there an increase? It’s likely that many antagonizing factors are playing a role here. The WHO is keen to underscore the fact that bacterial infections like gonorrhea are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, thanks to how overprescribed they are in both healthcare and agriculture.

There’s also likely to be a structural problem at work. America’s healthcare system is notoriously faulty, as its increasing and unfathomably high infant mortality rate, as just one example, highlights.


Sex education is obviously not getting the message across to many, particularly the young, for whom chlamydia and gonorrhea ravage the most frequently. People are also not going to, or are not able to, screen themselves regularly enough for these STIs either, something the CDC report suggests should be provided as part of an individual’s standard medical care.

It certainly doesn’t help that certain members of the government keep attempting to issue legislation that not only takes away coverage from tens of millions of Americans, but also seeks to remove contraception and sexual health treatment from the poorest members of society. Healthcare funding in multiple states has decreased since 2012, particularly the budgets for testing and treatment of these diseases.

As summed up rather succinctly by The Economist, it takes more than condoms to protect a country from STIs.


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