Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are skyrocketing in the United States, with substantial increases seen in case counts of chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea.
Overall, instances of STIs increased by 7% in 2021, to 2.5 million cases, according to recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“The U.S. STI epidemic shows no signs of slowing,” said Dr. Leandro Mena, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention.
Cases of syphilis increased sharply, with a 32% increase in patients seen in one year. The number includes a rise in instances passed between pregnant mothers and their babies, which is deadly. Congenital Syphilis caused 220 infant deaths and stillbirths in 2021.
“I am alarmed to see a rise in preventable syphilis and congenital syphilis cases in our nation,” said the president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, Dr. Anne Zink, in a statement. “When I was training to be a physical years ago, I did not encounter syphilis cases; I now see them regularly. I encourage all physicians to test for this disease, which is easily treatable with penicillin…By including this step in routine appointments, we can save adults and unborn babies from unnecessary pain, harm, or even death.”
In the meantime, chlamydia rates increased by 4% during 2021, with gonorrhea cases up by 5%, according to CNN.
Mena mentioned missed opportunities in the maternal treatment of syphilis and prenatal care.
“The most important thing to remember is that congenital syphilis is 100% preventable,” said Mena. “In many ways, it is the result of our failure to prevent syphilis among women of reproductive age and their partners.”
Executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, David Harvey, said, “Syphilis — and especially congenital Syphilis — is the canary in the coal mine for a devastating and out-of-control epidemic of sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. These are completely preventable infections that too often go unseen, undetected, and untreated. We need an all-of-government response that meets the gravity of the crisis.”
Mena emphasized that the pandemic contributed to the rise in STIs
The stigma attached to STIs indicates they are also underreported. The actual number is probably “staggering,” said Mena.
Case rates are also disproportionately higher among bisexual and gay men, Black and Indigenous peoples, and younger people.
“To make progress towards ending this STI epidemic, we must really meet people where they are by developing tailored and localized interventions to have the greatest impact,” said Mena. “We want to make sure that we’re addressing the social and economic conditions that make it more difficult for some of these populations to stay healthy.”
Women reported more challenges to access services in 2021 than four years prior. The difficulties include the accessibility of routine services, including birth control and screenings. To worsen matters, women are finding it more difficult to access reproductive health care services, according to a recent report.
“The lack of access to health care, including testing and treatment for STI, can make it difficult for people to receive the care they need,” said Mena. “Decreased funding for public health and an eroding infrastructure in public health really have limited access to testing-driven services.”