Sexually transmitted diseases are only spreading farther and wider, a new report released Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found, and cases in young people are largely driving the epidemic.
In 2016, there were more than 2 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, each disease surpassing their 2015 total and setting a new record high for the third consecutive year. The true tally is higher still, with an estimated 20 million Americans believed to contract new STDs every year. Though the majority of these STDs cause few symptoms, if left untreated they can lead to chronic pain, infertility and an increased risk of more serious infections like HIV.
"Increases in STDs are a clear warning of a growing threat," said Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in a statement. "STDs are a persistent enemy, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond."
The greatest net increase was seen with chlamydia, which had already taken the crown as the most common STD in the US: Last year, the number of new cases reached 1.6 million, amounting to a 4.7 percent increase from 2015. But cases of gonorrhea shot up more dramatically—the more than 450,000 reported cases seen in 2016 represented an 18.5 percent rise in the overall rate. Young adults 15 to 24 continued to be the most at risk of catching both chlamydia and gonorrhea.
The rate of syphilis cases has also begun to rise among young Americans, but it has hit women and their children especially hard. There was a 36 percent rate increase among women, and a 28 percent increase among newborns who contracted the infection in the womb. Of the more than 600 babies born with congenital syphilis, 40 either died or developed severe defects, a fate entirely preventable.
"Every baby born with syphilis represents a tragic systems failure," says Gail Bolan, director of CDC's Division of STD Prevention. "All it takes is a simple STD test and antibiotic treatment to prevent this enormous heartache and help assure a healthy start for the next generation of Americans."
The same goes for the majority of these STD cases in adults, too. Aside from being preventable with safe sex practices like regular condom use, all three STDs can be treated with antibiotics (though gonorrhea is becoming increasingly hard to treat with standard drugs).
But public health officials are working with fewer resources than ever, with local STD control programs stymied by budget cuts. In New York City, for instance, one of the most visited city-run STD clinics has been infamously shut down for two years due to renovations. Located in Chelsea, a neighborhood with a strong LGBTQ presence and which has traditionally seen some of the highest STD rates in the city, the clinic is scheduled to reopen sometime this year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the city has seen a surge in STD cases during its absence, particularly among gay and bisexual men, who remain the most at risk.
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