It’s been a banner half-decade for sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S., according to a new report out Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018 saw yet another record high for STDs in the country, with reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis climbing for the fifth straight year.
The report’s findings, as even the CDC admits, are an imperfect measure of how often people in the U.S. are actually getting STDs.
For one, some STDS, such as genital herpes and trichomoniasis, aren’t nationally tracked on a yearly basis by the CDC. Other diseases spread by sex, like viral hepatitis and HIV, are tracked on a national level, but their numbers aren’t detailed in this report. And though chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are the three most commonly reported STDs in the country, many people catch these diseases but go undiagnosed, often because they never display any symptoms.
Despite these limitations, the new report serves as a barometer for the country’s overall STD trends, and things aren’t looking good.
In 2018, there were nearly 2.5 million confirmed cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis—the highest combined number of all three ever documented. Chlamydia was the most common STD with 1.78 million cases, followed by gonorrhea with over 580,000 cases, and syphilis with over 115,000 cases.
The annual rate of chlamydia has climbed steadily since 2000, when it first began being nationally tracked. And while reported rates of gonorrhea and syphilis have been higher historically, they had been on a downward trend for decades until recently. The rates of all three have risen without fail for five years and counting.
The jump in syphilis has been especially tragic, since it can transmit from mother to child in the womb and cause serious, sometimes fatal complications. Between 2017 and 2018, cases of congenital syphilis increased 40 percent, with more than 1,300 in 2018; deaths increased 22 percent as well, with 94 deaths in 2018.
“This goes beyond data and surveillance, beyond numbers and calculations—we lost 94 lives before they even began to an entirely preventable infection,” said Gail Bolan, director of the Division of STD Prevention at the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in a statement on Tuesday.
There’s no one simple answer for why STDs are becoming more common in the U.S.. Strangely enough, young Americans, one of the groups most at risk to catch STDs, are likely having less sex and with fewer partners than past generations. But the CDC report does note that state and local STD program budgets have been cut in recent years, leading to staff layoffs and reduced hours at sexual health clinics. The lack of funding has also led to higher co-pays for patients, which can obviously make it harder for people to be diagnosed and treated for STDs.
For the time being, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are still relatively easy to treat with antibiotics once diagnosed, though even that is starting to change. Cases of highly resistant gonorrhea, for instance, are starting to crop up across the world and even in the U.S. That makes prevention all the more crucial, so practice safer sex with condoms and other prophylactics and get routinely tested if you’re sexually active, especially if you have multiple partners.