Skyrocketing STDs have doctors urging sexually active young people to be tested

August 31, 2018
colorful condoms
Condoms reduce the risk for all STDs.

MUSC Health obstetrician and gynecologist Jessica Tarleton has seen a lot in her role as a reproductive infectious disease specialist, but even she is stunned by new STD statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “A lot of these infections are in young people, very young people.”

This week, the CDC reported there were almost 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the United States last year.

  • Chlamydia is the most common, with more than 1.7 million cases last year. 

  • Gonorrhea diagnoses rose 67 percent between 2013 and 2017, hitting 555,608 last year. 

  • Syphilis jumped 76 percent during that same time period, hitting 30,644 cases last year.

“One of the things people aren’t recognizing is that they might be at risk for having these infections. The CDC recommends testing for sexually transmitted infections yearly for women under the age of 25 and people at risk,” Tarleton says. “If you’ve had a new sexual partner since the last time you were tested for sexually transmitted infections and you don’t know their status, you are at risk.”

Here’s why getting tested matters. A lot of people who have STDs don’t have any symptoms or don’t realize their rashes and other issues are linked to STDs. So if they don’t get tested regularly, the disease can progress. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause infertility in women if left untreated. Syphilis can cause neurological problems in both women and men, Tarleton says. And it can do more than that.

“One of the things that’s most upsetting to me is the rate of syphilis we’re seeing in pregnant women, because that can have severe effects on the fetus and baby. Babies can have congenital birth defects, some bone malformations, blindness and deafness. Sometimes it can lead to miscarriage or fetal death in utero. This can happen in moms who don’t know they have it.”

The good news is, all three STDs are treatable with antibiotics, although there is concern that gonorrhea is becoming antibiotic resistant. 

So what’s going on? Why is the U.S. seeing a surge in STDs to the point that it’s being called a public health crisis?

Tarleton says part of the problem is some of the people at risk of getting STDs, young people, don’t know enough to worry about them. “Our teenagers are kind of going out unequipped to protect themselves from getting these infections.”

Other factors causing the rise in STDs, cited in a national discussion this week at the CDC’s 2018 STD Prevention Conference, include: 

  • A lack of funding for prevention programs.

  • The opioid epidemic, which is causing some women to trade sex for drugs.

  • Methamphetamines and other drugs, which are linked to forced sex, sex for money and sex with people who inject drugs.

  • Doctors and patients who are reluctant to talk about STDs.

MUSC Health has a reproductive infectious disease group within its OB-GYN department that includes Tarleton. It also offers treatment of STDs through the recently-launched MUSC Health Virtual Care program, which uses online interviews to treat common conditions.

Tarleton says the best way to prevent STDs is to use condoms. “Condoms are still a very effective way of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections. And we want people to take seriously the need for screening and treatment of themselves and their sexual partners. I don’t think the message has been getting out, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem.”