STDs/STIs are at a dangerous high in the US right now

By Maya Khamala

Back in the 80s and 90s I remember the ceaseless (and downright alarming) AIDS prevention campaigns that seemed to be sweeping the collective imagination. Was mortal fear the reason people seemed more motivated to practice safe sex? Over the last few decades, though, STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) were renamed STIs (sexually transmitted infections) in many circles as a way of reducing stigma, and people seemed to calm down about safe sex a little.

Indeed, my own cumming of age in the late 90s was characterized by a sense that, thanks to science, HIV was no longer the death sentence it once was, and so long as you were safe-ish and got tested on occasion, you’d be okay. Besides, it seemed that if you did happen to catch an STI, it could be quietly cured without much hassle. Most women I knew were more worried about unwanted pregnancy than contracting an STI. 

News flash: STDs are still a real life threat 

Fast forward to 2019, and we’re facing a bonafide situation. According to the annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report released October 8 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia reached an unprecedented high in the US in 2018. And although STDs can have a range of severe health consequences, newborn deaths associated with congenital syphilis (passed from mom to baby) are among the most devastating—they rose 22% between 2017 to 2018–that’s 77 to 94 infant deaths.

The report’s findings also showed an undeniable increase in the 3 most commonly reported STDs from 2017 to 2018:

• There were more than 115,000 syphilis cases reported. The number of primary and secondary syphilis cases (the most infectious stages) increased 14% to over 35,000 cases, the highest number since 1991. The infection rose 36% among women of childbearing age, and, among newborns it increased 40% to 1300+ cases. Five states accounted for 70% of all cases: Texas, California, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana.

• Gonorrhoea increased 5% to more than 580,000 cases, which also happens to be the highest number since 1991.

• Chlamydia increased 3% to over 1.7 million cases, the most ever reported to the CDC.

Beyond embarrassment: real risks 

While you and I both may’ve had moments of dismissiveness wherein we have waved our proverbial hand at the potential seriousness of STIs, they do pose real risks, even if you’re not expecting a baby. While antibiotics can cure syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia alike, if any of the above are left untreated (they don’t always present with symptoms, in case you missed the memo), they can, of course be transmitted to others. As well, they can cause infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and an increased risk of contracting HIV. Meanwhile, congenital syphilis can lead to miscarriages, stillbirths, the aforementioned newborn death, as well as severe lifelong physical and neurological problems. So it's nothing to balk at, you see.

Prevention, please 

The CDC recommends syphilis testing for all pregnant women the first time they see a healthcare provider about their pregnancy, as early prenatal care and STD testing can protect mothers and their babies from syphilis, which is very preventable. Women who, for whatever reason, are at a higher risk, should be tested again early in the third trimester and at delivery.

Practicing safer sex is also integral to prevention (of course), as is being tested regularly or between relationships or whatever makes sense given your lifestyle. And, if infected, seeking treatment immediately is the way to go. Prevention also means asking your partner(s) to get tested and, if applicable, treated to avoid reinfection. Yes, it’s crappy to talk about. But much crappier to deal with.

Urgent action 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes CDC, is developing a Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Federal Action Plan (STI Plan) to address and reverse the nation’s current STD epidemic (yes, that's what they’re calling it). This STI Plan is being developed with input from a wide variety of stakeholders, and is set to be released in 2020. 

How did it get so bad? Aren’t we too modern for this? 

In case you're wondering how the risk of crazy syphilis/gonorrhoea/chlamydia outbreaks didn’t die centuries ago, or at least by the time the alarming AIDS campaigns of the 80s and 90s had died down, data suggests that many intersecting factors are adding to the rise in STDs. These include drug use, poverty, stigma, and unstable housing, which can in turn reduce access to prevention and care services. As well, a decrease in condom use among “vulnerable” groups like youth, gay men, and bisexual men—as cited by the report (although this finger-pointing at ‘high risk’ groups seems a little 1987 to me). What’s worse, in recent years, cuts to STD programs have occurred at the state and local level alike: more than 50% of local programs have undergone budget cuts. This means clinic closures, a loss of staff, and reduced screening and patient follow-ups. So—to answer your question, no, sadly we’re not too high tech ’n modern for all this.

Here’s to safer, sexier sex for all y’all.


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