Sep 27, 2017 12:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell

The number of sexually transmitted diseases hit an all-time high in 2016. According to the Centers for Disease Control more than 2 million new cases of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia were reported in 2016. While some are pointing fingers at dating apps and changing moral attitudes for the increase there may be a simpler answer: Most people don’t feel they are at risk and attitudes towards STDs (also called sexually transmitted infection or STIs) keeps them from being tested and getting treatment.

“Embarrassment and misinformation may be allowing an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases to flourish in the United States,” said Andrew Pavia, MD, an infectious disease specialist with University of Utah Health. “There can be a sense of shame or stigma about STIs that get in the way of good care. There has also been a decrease in funding for public health, which may have decreased access to affordable and confidential STI care for many people.”

Historically, some populations are more at risk for STIs than others. Younger men and women, men who have sex with other men and minority groups traditionally have higher rates of infection. However, the new CDC report shows increases in infections across virtually all populations regardless of age, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. “So, if you are sexually active outside of a long term mutually monogamous relationship where both partners have been tested in the past, you may be at risk,” said Pavia.

One group that may be overlooking their STI status—and definitely shouldn’t be—is pregnant women. The CDC report shows an increase in the number of babies born with STIs that were passed to them in utero. These infections include gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV—all of which can lead to serious health complications or even death.

“Pregnant women should get tested for HIV, hepatitis B, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia,” said Pavia. “With proper treatment of HIV during pregnancy, there is essentially no chance of transmission from an HIV-positive woman to her child, and she can have a healthy baby. Untreated gonorrhea can cause severe eye infections in infants and even blindness but testing and treatment of the mother prevents this.”

Infants are not the only ones at risk for long term health complications from STIs. Leaving an infection undetected and untreated can cause serious problems—even if you have no symptoms. “The long-term complication that impacts the greatest number of people is infertility related to untreated chlamydia,” said Pavia. “Untreated syphilis can attack the brain, spinal cord, eyes, or the heart. Hepatitis C or hepatitis B cause chronic liver problems if untreated and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.”

Stopping the spread of STIs is not only about detection and treatment but also prevention. Condoms are still effective protection for most STIs, but for one common STI, we now have a vaccine. A vaccine is available to prevent the human papillomavirus (HPV) and could help reduce the number of people infected with the virus. Currently, more than 14 million people in the U.S. are infected with HPV each year, and there is no cure. “HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, throat, penis and anus but the HPV vaccine is extremely effective,” said Pavia. “It is highly recommended for young people and some other groups but sadly, the majority of people who could benefit have not been vaccinated yet.”

Ignoring the spread of STIs in the United States will not make them go away. In fact, lack of education and discussion about STIs could be a reason they continue to rapidly spread. “We need to change course and be open about talking about sexual health, the need for STI testing, where that testing can be done, and how simple treatment can be,” said Pavia. “Starting those discussions is the first step in making changes and reducing harm.”  

You can learn more about the CDC’s guidelines for STI testing here.

sexually transmitted diseases chlamydia HPV HIV syphilis gonorrhea

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