As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, so too did a rise in reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of reported cases of gonorrhea and primary and secondary syphilis increased by 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively, from 2019. Additionally, cases of congenital syphilis – or syphilis passed from mother to child during pregnancy – rose by nearly 15 percent. These increases come as no surprise given that STDs are often spread through close contact – including sexual activity – which became much more difficult to avoid during lockdowns and other restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, experts say that these rising STD rates are also part of a larger trend that has been unfolding over the past decade as public health funding declines. This decline in funding has led to fewer resources being available for STD prevention and treatment initiatives. For example, many clinics have had to shut their doors due to a lack of funds, leaving fewer options for people who need testing or treatment. This is especially problematic because STDs can have serious long-term health consequences if left untreated – including infertility, organ damage, and even death. In light of this fact, it is clear that we must do more as a society to address this growing problem. We cannot allow the pandemic to be used as an excuse for further inaction on this critical issue.
Factors blamed for the spike include reduced frequency of in-person healthcare services resulting in less screening; diversion of health workers from STD work to respond to the COVID pandemic; STD test and lab supply shortages; and lapses in health insurance due to unemployment. This is a hugely concerning trend that requires urgent attention by authorities. The high number of STD cases among young people is especially worrisome as it indicates that risky sexual behavior is becoming more common in this age group. This is likely due to a combination of factors including inadequate sex education (which leaves young people ill-equipped to make informed choices about their sexual activity), peer pressure, and societal norms around sexuality that promote casual hookups over meaningful relationships. It’s also clear that racism continues to be a major driver of poor sexual health outcomes for communities of color – with Black Americans particularly affected by syphilis at rates eight times higher than white Americans. This disparity exists because racial minority groups are more likely to live in poverty and lack access to repeat testing and treatment options that can help keep STDs under control. They are also often distrustful or even hostile towards mainstream healthcare providers, meaning they are less likely to seek out care when needed. It’s vital that we address these systemic inequalities if we want to eradicate STDs altogether.