For the first time since 2006, cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are on the rise, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency reports that while the sexually transmitted diseases continue to impact young people and women most severely, the recent increases were driven by rising disease rates among men.
Released just today as part of CDC’s Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014 report, the data finds that chlamydia cases are up 2.8 percent since 2013; primary and secondary syphilis (the most infectious stages of the disease) are up 15.1 percent since 2013; and gonorrhea is up 5.1 percent since 2013. It’s important to note that these numbers are based on reported cases, whereas many cases go unreported and other types of STDs, such as herpes and human papillomavirus, aren’t regularly reported to CDC. STDs cost the U.S. $16 billion in health care costs every year and are often preventable.
“America’s worsening STD epidemic is a clear call for better diagnosis, treatment and prevention,” said Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, in an agency press release. “STDs affect people in all walks of life, particularly young women and men, but these data suggest an increasing burden among gay and bisexual men.”
Digger deeper into the new surveillance data, CDC reports that cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea are highest among young people ages 15 to 24. However, young women face more serious long-term effects from such infections, with researchers estimating that undiagnosed STDs result in more than 20,000 women becoming infertile each year. Rates of syphilis have gone up among both men and women, however men account for more than 90 percent of primary and secondary syphilis cases. Syphilis rates are significantly higher among gay and bisexual men. And more than half of men who have sex with men who were diagnosed with syphilis in 2014 were also living with HIV — a data point that’s particularly concerning as syphilis can make it easier to transmit and become infected with HIV.
However, CDC reports that young people remain at highest risk for acquiring an STD, particularly chlamydia and gonorrhea. In fact, young people ages 15 to 24 accounted for almost two-thirds of all reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in 2014. CDC experts say that despite recommendations that sexually active youth be regularly screened for STDs, far too few young people are actually getting tested.
In response to the new data, the National Coalition of STD Directors noted that proposed federal budget cuts now in Congress “would likely end CDC’s ability to fund all state health departments for STD prevention and control.” Earlier this year, for example, a funding bill that got through the Senate Appropriations Committee included a 20 percent cut to CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. Public health departments play a critical role in STD prevention and control, providing confidential screening services and referrals, education, contact tracing and disease surveillance. In fact, health department-run clinics are often able to reach a community’s most vulnerable residents and those who might otherwise go without testing and care.
“These shocking and ever-increasing STD rates are a real clarion call for action,” stated William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “This is a time when the health care delivery system needs public health leadership and additional investments in this work are required to ensure this leadership. Cuts to our public health system at the federal, state, and local levels have eviscerated its capacity and this diminished capacity of the public health system simply cannot adequately address STD increases of this magnitude.”
Visit CDC for a full copy of Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.