Why are sexually transmitted infections on the rise?
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its latest data on cases of sexually transmitted infections during the first year of the pandemic. In early 2020, the number of people diagnosed with gonorrhea and syphilis decreased, as might be expected – after all, it was a time of extreme isolation for many. Furthermore, however, infection rates have increased so much that by the end of the year the case count was 10% and 7% higher than in 2019. In total, there were approximately 134,000 reports of syphilis and 678,000 reports. of gonorrhea. These were “staggering,” says Hilary Reno, an associate professor at Washington University School of Medicine and medical director of the St. Louis County Sexual Health Clinic. “I can’t tell you how many primary care doctors have called me recently and said, ‘I just saw my first case of syphilis this year.’”
In fact, syphilis was nearly eradicated in the United States around 2000; gonorrhea reached its lowest infection rates in 2009. Many doctors who started practicing during that time had no experience diagnosing these sexually transmitted diseases, particularly in their female patients. According to Ina Park, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, “There is a whole generation of doctors and clinicians who have never seen syphilis in women and children before.”
This is a significant problem: STDs can irrevocably damage the reproductive system. Every year in the United States at least 20,000 women are made sterile by untreated STDs. Syphilis can cause sores and rashes, and if left untreated for decades, fatal damage to the brain, heart, and other organs. Gonorrhea can be painful and can cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women. Each condition is caused by bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics (although drug-resistant strains of the bacterium that causes gonorrhea are on the rise). Unfortunately, they are often asymptomatic, especially in women, and it may be harder for them to see signs of infection and easier to mistake some of these signs as normal secretions or yeast infections.
The ease with which STDs spread unnoticed makes it essential to check them regularly. Yet this is not happening. “The pandemic worsened sexually transmitted diseases in America: for the first year, people almost stopped getting tested and treated,” says David C. Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, a trade association. for the state and local department of health of sexually transmitted diseases programs that collected their data during the pandemic. (The CDC data comes from a national surveillance system that includes mandatory laboratory reporting and sample surveys.) Additionally, contact tracers, assigned to notify exposure to sexual partners, have been redeployed to focus on Covid.