STD rates are rising, and here's what you should know

Friends having great time together
Just a reminder: The only safe sex is sex with a condom. (Image: Ivanko_Brnjakovic/iStock/GettyImages)

The rates of sexually transmitted diseases have reach a new high (or low, as it were) in California, where the reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have skyrocketed to 300,000, a 45 percent increase from just five years earlier.

In 2017, more than 75,000 Californians were diagnosed with gonorrhea, a 16 percent jump from the year before, and close to 218,000 were diagnosed with chlamydia, a 9 percent increase from 2016 and the highest number since reporting began in 1990, according to the California Department of Public Health’s latest report.

Most concerning, though, say health officials, is the rise in syphilis and congenital syphilis (in which the disease is passed from mother to child), which led to 30 stillbirths in 2017. The total number of syphilis cases for the year was just over 13,000. The last time syphilis was as prevalent in the state was in 1987.

Non-Californians might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief (at least your state is in the clear, it would seem). But it turns out STD rates are on the rise across the country. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there were more than 2 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the United States in 2016, the highest number ever. That’s right, ever.

At the time, Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, called the issue “a growing threat” and said that STDs are “outpacing our ability to respond.” Yikes!

So what’s behind the record-high numbers, and what’s being done about them? To find out more, LIVESTRONG.COM talked to Heidi M. Bauer, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the STD Control Branch for the California Department of Public Health.

As Dr. Bauer explains, California is a large state with a diverse geography, so there are different reasons underlying the increase in different populations. Among men who have sex with men in “primarily urban areas,” the arrival of HIV prevention tools like pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, has led to a documented decline in condom use. (Some reports also suggest that condom use is dropping among young people.)

“Folks are feeling very safe from HIV infections, and I think they’re forgetting that they are still at risk for other STDs,” says Dr. Bauer. She adds the mobile dating apps have also made it easy for people to meet up, have sex and then go AWOL, which becomes a challenge when someone diagnosed with an STD might want to notify past partners.

However, in other parts of the state — as in other parts of the country — mobile apps and HIV prevention strategies have nothing to do with the problem. Instead, poverty, homelessness, mental illness and “extreme barriers” to health care are all to blame.

A lack of funding has also resulted in the shuttering of STD clinics in lower-income areas. “Once those STD clinics closed, people couldn’t access free, high-quality STD services,” says Dr. Bauer.

So does that mean STDs are somewhat contained and restricted to certain populations? No such luck. “People cross county lines — with communicable diseases they’re never just in one state or county,” says Dr. Bauer.

To stay safe, condom use is obviously a must, as is regular testing, especially given that syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are often present without any symptoms. Left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, while syphilis can cause serious brain damage. Fortunately, antibiotics can treat most cases (not the “super” kind).

If you’re sexually active and haven’t had an STD test in a while (or, gulp, ever), head to the CDC’s Get Tested site to find a clinic near you. Knowledge is power!

What Do YOU Think?

Are you surprised by the rising STD rates? Do you know people who have become more lax about condom use? Do you regularly get tested? Let us know in the comments below.

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