Did you know that one out of five Americans has a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? Unfortunately, the numbers have been rising in recent years – even during 2020 when the pandemic hit.
Surprisingly, social distancing and stay-at-home orders didn’t slow the spread of STDs. During 2020 in the U.S., reported cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and congenital syphilis (when a mother passes the infection to her unborn baby) surpassed 2019 levels. A record 2.4 million Americans acquired an STD during 2020.
Why would STDs increase during a pandemic?
Shalika Katugaha, MD, system medical director of Infectious Diseases at Baptist Health, explained there were a number of factors contributing to the rise.
“When the pandemic hit, public health workers were laser-focused on COVID-19 at the expense of other infectious diseases, including STDs,” Dr. Katugaha said. “Also, during 2020, there were fewer primary care visits, which led to decreased STD screening. Lapses in health insurance due to unemployment, and shortages in STD tests also contributed to the rise. And unfortunately, many people who remained asymptomatic with an STD unknowingly passed the disease to others."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ethnic minority groups had the largest increases due to less access to health care resources and education. Many public health clinics had to shut down during the pandemic, which meant missed screenings and treatments, Dr. Katugaha added.
Importance of screening
Many STDs don’t have symptoms, so screening is necessary for timely diagnosis and treatment.
“Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis can be cured with antibiotics,” said Dr. Katugaha. “Treatment prevents the spread of the disease to others.”
Congenital syphilis is of particular concern. Infants born with the disease are more likely to have deformities, severe anemia and brain and nerve problems.
“This is exceptionally disappointing,” said Dr. Katugaha. “Because we have a treatment for syphilis, there is no reason this should be passed along to a newborn. Congenital syphilis is 100% preventable.”
Understanding your risk
According to the CDC, people most at risk for acquiring an STD are those who:
- Engage in unprotected sex
- Have multiple and/or anonymous sexual partners
- Use alcohol or drugs while having sex, leading to lower inhibitions and more sexual risk-taking
Teens and young adults are also more likely to get a sexually acquired infection, with people ages 15 – 24 accounting for 50% of all STD cases.
Be part of the solution
“The good news is that STDs are preventable by practicing safe sex, and the spread can be reduced through early screening and treatment,” said Dr. Katugaha.
If you’re sexually active, here are some ways to protect yourself from acquiring an STD:
- Ask your primary care doctor about prevention methods
- Talk to your partner(s) about STDs and safe sex
- Get tested, especially if you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant