Rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise in America, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here’s what you need to know about this alarming trend, including why public health experts believe it’s occurring.
Between 2020 and 2021, the CDC documented more than 2.5 million STI cases in the United States, marking a 7 percent year-over-year increase. Rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis all spiked, with scientists noting a “particularly jarring” uptick in cases of congenital syphilis in newborn infants. The latter surged more than 30 percent during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s especially concerning since it is considered completely preventable.
Although STIs can affect everyone, cases in 2021 were disproportionately high among certain demographics, including gay and bisexual men, Black and Native American people, and younger people. And since the CDC only has data on reported cases, actual STI rates are likely even higher.
“The U.S. STI epidemic shows no signs of slowing,” said Leandro Mena, MD, MPH, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, in a media statement.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are all treatable with antibiotics — but in order to receive treatment, patients must be able to access sexual health services. And therein lies the rub.
The CDC says a number of complicated factors are behind this uptick in STI cases nationwide, including continued divestment in public health infrastructure. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many local health clinics shuttered or became focused on pandemic-related services. But these community-based hubs are crucial for educating people about STIs and providing basic services, such as testing and treatment.
As CNN reported, a recent JAMA study found that reproductive healthcare is also suffering post-pandemic. People who can get pregnant were more likely to report challenges accessing this care — such as routine syphilis screenings during pregnancy — in 2021 versus 2017.
“The lack of access to healthcare, including testing and treatment for [STIs], can make it difficult for people to receive the care they need,” Mena told CNN. “Decreased funding for public health and an eroding infrastructure in public health really have limited access to testing driven services.”
These obstacles are structural, so the CDC has proposed a series of structural solutions. The agency is urging officials to rebuild and sustain local public health services; make STI screenings and treatment more accessible, “including through the development and approval of point-of-care rapid tests and self-tests”; and continue exploring new pharmaceutical interventions.
“It will take many of us working together to effectively use new and existing tools, to increase access to quality sexual healthcare services for more people, and to encourage ongoing innovation and prioritization of STI prevention and treatment in this country,” Mena added.
For individuals, the CDC suggests adopting safer sex practices to prevent the spread of STIs. This can include wearing condoms during sex, engaging in mutually monogamous relationships, reducing your number of sex partners, and/or abstaining from partnered sex.
The agency also recommends regular STI screenings for sexually active people — including pregnant people, who should be tested for syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C “early in pregnancy.”
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