Sexually transmitted diseases are at an all time high. News on upticks in STD rates is troubling—but no, we can't blame Tinder. By Rachel Feltman posted May 15th, at On Monday, the California Department of Public Health released a report showing a 45 percent increase in cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and early syphilis between and The state saw , documented cases of chlamydia in alone, which is the highest rate since Many headlines have focused on the fact that public health professionals suggest social media services like Tinder might be partially to blame.
But while the new data out of California is indeed troubling—and may be due in part to digital-era sexual behavior—the results are not surprising, and cannot be explained by individual behavior alone. The CDC found an increase in those same three infections between and , not just in California but across the entire country.
And the shift, according to experts, likely has more to do with stigma against testing and low access to healthcare than promiscuity. Americans, on the whole, are really bad at talking about sex, and even worse at talking about sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
As recently as , one study found, half of patients visiting Sexually Transmitted Disease STD clinics were unwilling to use their health insurance to cover the cost of their visit—likely because of privacy concerns, the researchers concluded.
The average high school health course includes less than four hours spent talking about all Sexually Transmitted Infections STIs and pregnancy prevention combined, and 87 percent allow guardians to exclude their children from even this coursework.
So on the one hand, it's not surprising to hear that rates of these infections are going up, on average, instead of down. And given the lack of education and discourse on these health issues, it would make sense for many Americans to interpret the findings of the Centers for Disease Control's annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report as the result of some sort of moral decline.
But according to medical professionals, the problem isn't that people are having more sex—the problem is that sexual healthcare, and the policies that fund it, are in dire shape. Many infections do not turn into "diseases," which alter the body's function. Herpes, for example, fails to cause symptoms in the vast majority of people infected with it.
But since the CDC's report focuses on people who've been diagnosed with infections by a doctor, it sticks with the older, more familiar acronym; STD.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled article. The CDC's new report focuses on , since that's the most recent year that the center has complete data for. It also only focuses on the three infections that doctors are required by law to report: On average and across most individual demographic groups , rates of HIV were on the decline as of the last data assessment.
The CDC's new report does not include any data that refutes that, and the increasingly widespread use of drugs to prevent transmission makes it unlikely that HIV rates are going up.
But it's true—and troubling—that chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis all became more common from to The CDC reports 1.
Rates of chlamydia jumped up by 4. Rates of gonorrhea, which dropped to an all-time national low in , increased by over 18 percent from Syphilis hit its own historic low in , but has increased steadily ever since. Rates saw a Syphilis is most common among men who have sex with men, but infection rates in women rose by nearly 36 percent in —more than double the increase seen in men.
How worried should people be about these infections? The good news is that all three of the aforementioned infections are bacterial , and they're generally easy to treat. The bad news is that tricky "generally. A recent report by the World Health Organization looking at data from 77 countries found that gonorrhea is increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
The organization called for new antibiotics to add to our line of defense. Unfortunately, they reported that only three such drugs were in any stage of development at the time.
As chlamydia becomes more common, it too will no doubt increasingly evade pharmaceutical interventions. Both chlamydia and gonorrhea are often asymptomatic, but can cause pain and infertility if left untreated.
Syphilis is typically still easy to treat with good old penicillin —though again, increased infection rates offer more chances for the bacteria to develop resistance—but it might actually be the most troubling infection in the CDC's report.
That's because people aren't getting treated, and that, in turn, is causing a rise in a potentially fatal fetal condition that simply shouldn't exist in the age of antibiotics.
Congenital syphilis is a terrible disease. When syphilis goes untreated during pregnancy, miscarriages are incredibly common. And 40 percent of fetuses with syphilis that are carried to term are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Those who survive can suffer from deformed bones, anemia, enlarged livers and spleens, jaundice, meningitis, rashes, blindness, deafness, and other brain and nerve-related problems. The sharp increase in this particular condition gets at the crux of the whole issue: It's that they're not getting adequate access to healthcare.
All it takes is a simple STD test and antibiotic treatment to prevent this tragedy from occurring. A recent study actually found that teens are waiting longer to have sexual intercourse, and are more likely to use contraception. This is slightly misleading, since an increase in oral sex—and a lack of thorough sex-ed to teach young people that protection is also needed during these sort of encounters—could help STIs keep spreading.
But still, doctors don't think individual behaviors are to blame for these upticks. He and other clinicians say that funding cutbacks for both prevention education and healthcare are to blame. Funding issues aside, he says, it's important to remember that STIs are disproportionately more common in young and marginalized people.
Without a broad commitment to sexual health as a public health priority, these rates will keep going up. What can I do about it? Supporting policies that give everyone access to reliable medical care—and comprehensive sex education, early and often—is a great start. If you're worried about your own personal sexual health, well, that's easier: Get tested more than you think you need to get tested, and educate yourself about the actual risk factors for sexually transmitted infections.
If you swear you'd never, ever have sex with someone with herpes, but haven't asked for an STI panel at the doctor in over a year? You haven't educated yourself. If you blanch at ads for drugs that allow HIV-positive people to stop using condoms with their HIV-negative partners but yourself engage in oral sex without condoms or dental dams? We need less stigma and more efforts to actually improve our health.
We don't have that going for us with gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia. We need a network of voices that say it's OK to get help. Don't assume your annual physical has you covered, and don't be embarrassed about what your test results might show. Knowing your status is always, always better than blissful ignorance.