CDC Releases New STI Stats and They Aren't Looking Good

Wednesday April 14, 2021

On April 13, the Centers for Disease Control released their latest national survey for Sexually Transmitted Infections (aka Sexually Transmitted Diseases) and the data isn't looking good. The 2019 STD Surveillance Report concludes "that reported annual cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States continued to climb in 2019, reaching an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year."

Amongst the findings are:

  • 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, the three most commonly reported STDs in 2019.

  • A nearly 30% increase in these reportable STDs between 2015 and 2019.

  • The sharpest increase was in cases of syphilis among newborns (i.e., congenital syphilis), which nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2019.

    "Less than 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates in the U.S. were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and advances in chlamydia diagnostics made it easier to detect infections," said Raul Romaguera, DMD, MPH, acting director for CDC's Division of STD Prevention, in the report. "That progress has since unraveled, and our STD defenses are down. We must prioritize and focus our efforts to regain this lost ground and control the spread of STDs."

    While numbers are up across the population, "it continued to hit racial and ethnic minority groups, gay and bisexual men, and youth the hardest." For African Americans the rates were "5-8 times that of non-Hispanic White people." American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander people "were 3-5 times that of non-Hispanic White people." And Hispanic or Latino people "were 1-2 times that of non-Hispanic White people."

    Gay and Bisexual men made up "nearly half of all 2019 primary and secondary syphilis cases, with gonorrhea rates 42 times that of heterosexual men in some areas."

    Younger people (15-24 years of age) made up "61% of chlamydia cases" and "42% of gonorrhea cases."

    "Focusing on hard-hit populations is critical to reducing disparities," said Jo Valentine, MSW, associate director of the Office of Health Equity in CDC's Division of STD Prevention in the report. "To effectively reduce these disparities, the social, cultural, and economic conditions that make it more difficult for some populations to stay healthy must be addressed. These include poverty, unstable housing, drug use, lack of medical insurance or regular medical provider, and high burden of STDs in some communities."

    Screening for STIs was already under stress due to cut backs to programs, the report stated; and the COVID crisis only added to the problem. "Since the pandemic began, large numbers of STD program staff at the state and local level have been deployed to the COVID-19 response, which can lead to more delays in services."

    The report concluded that the "COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already stretched system for STD control in the United States and accelerated the need to deliver accessible, high-quality STD services in new ways."

    "STDs will not wait for the pandemic to end, so we must rise to the challenge now," Romaguera said. "These new data should create a sense of urgency and mobilize the resources needed, so that future reports can tell a different story."

    But while COVID-19 has affected testing, it also may bring the STIs numbers down due to a marked decline in sexual activity. Salon wrote earlier this month that "a recent scientific study examining the sexual habits of nearly 500 British adults between the ages of 18 and 32 found that, as social restrictions were increased, there was an overall decrease in sexual behaviors."

    The survey "found that men tended to report higher levels of sexual desire than woman both before and during the pandemic lockdowns. Both groups also admitted to decreased levels of sexual desire during the lockdown — but the drop was only statistically significant (meaning the data reveals it did not happen by chance) for women."

    "Decreases in desire often happen during times of heightened anxiety and stress, so it isn't surprising," Dr. Liam Wignall, a lecturer in psychology at Bournemouth University, told Salon by email. "We can only speculate about the gender difference, and one reason could be that lockdown disproportionately impacted women because research shows women are more likely to take on domestic chores and childcare even when both partners have jobs."

    In the study "scholars analyzed sexual activity, they were not only talking about literal intercourse. Other sexual behaviors were also included in their analysis including watching pornography, masturbating and participating in online sexual relationships." The report also said "LGB people" reported more of an increase in sexual activity than heterosexuals.