While the world was contending with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, sexually transmitted diseases were causing their own brand of stateside chaos, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The agency in a news release Tuesday released new data showing that despite the decrease in reported sexually transmitted diseases early in 2020, “most resurged by the end of that year” in the U.S., with reports of gonorrhea, syphilis and congenital syphilis exceeding those of the prior year. Meanwhile, reports of chlamydia decreased by 13 percent.
Reports of gonorrhea increased by 10 percent in 2020 while those of primary and secondary syphilis saw a 7 percent increase, compared to the year prior, according to the CDC. The syphilis uptick was also seen among newborns, known as congenital syphilis, with reports up by close to 15 percent. That syphilis uptick also bled into last year, according to early data.
That data proves “alarming,” said Myron S. Cohen, MD, who teaches medicine, microbiology and epidemiology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Each of these infections — when untreated — have serious health consequences, and also increase the risk of HIV transmission,” said Cohen, who also serves as the director for the university’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.
Cohen pointed to 2020′s “reduced resources in public health,” as a result of the prioritization of COVID-19, as one of the potential explanations for the increase, noting that “failure to seek treatment early leaves more time for STI transmission.” But it wasn’t just the overwhelmed public health sector that could have influenced the statistics, said Cohen, who said lockdowns’ effects on “sexual behaviors and risk taking behaviors” may also have impacted the STD landscape.
The increased reports of congenital syphilis cases, he said, signify “a special and tragic problem that must reflect failure to detect and treat syphilis in pregnant women, with disastrous consequences.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic put enormous pressure on an already strained public health infrastructure,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. “There were moments in 2020 when it felt like the world was standing still, but STDs weren’t. The unrelenting momentum of the STD epidemic continued even as STD prevention services were disrupted.”