Cases of gonorrhea, syphilis rose nationally in 2020, CDC reports

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The rise in STDs nationally in 2020 is “alarming,” according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo by Adam Kontor/Pixabay

Cases of some sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, continued to rise in the United States during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020, nearly 680,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported nationally, a 10% increase from 2019 levels, the data showed.

Nearly 140,000 cases of syphilis were reported across the country in 2020, a 7% bump over 2019 figures, the agency said.

A small part of this rise in syphilis cases was fueled by a 15% increase in reported congenital — or mother-to-newborn — infections, according to the CDC.

Nearly 2,200 cases of congenital syphilis were reported nationally in 2020, up from 1,870 in 2019, agency figures showed.

Since 2016, the prevalence of congenital syphilis in the United States has increased by 235%, the CDC said.

“The unrelenting momentum of STDs continued as treatment and education services were disrupted” during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, based on early data, we already know some STDs increased in 2021 as well,” he said on the call.

Indeed, the numbers in 2020 reflect an ongoing trend in cases of several STDs that has persisted “for nearly a decade,” according to Mermin.

There is some evidence that there was “some change in sexual behavior in the early part of [2020]” nationally, with declines in STD cases in the early part of the year, when much of the country was under stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of COVID-19, he said.

However, case numbers rebounded at an “alarming” rate in the second half of the year, with many of the reported infections linked with injection-drug use, his colleague, Dr. Leandro Mena, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said on the Tuesday call.

As part of the ongoing “opioid epidemic,” the United States has seen a rise in injection drug use over the past 20 years, a trend that is expected to continue over the next decade, research suggests.

Even what appears to be good news regarding the spread of STDs across the country — a 13% decline in reported cases of chlamydia between 2019 and 2020 — actually may be a reflection of reduced availability of screening services during the pandemic, Mermin said.

Historically, chlamydia has accounted for the largest proportion of reported STDs in the United States, an indication the drop in 2020 may be due to underdiagnosis during the pandemic rather than a reduction in new infections, according to the CDC.

Still, the decline in reported chlamydia cases meant that the number of reported STDs nationally dropped to 2.4 million in 2020 from 2.5 million the year before, the agency said.

More than half of these infections occurred in teens and young adults, who “continue to bear the brunt” of STDs, Mena said.

Several factors likely contributed to the decline in cases, including reduced in-person healthcare services due to the pandemic, and diversion of public health staff from STD work to COVID-19 tasks as well as STD test and laboratory supply shortages, Mermin said.

“COVID-19 strained an already-crumbling public health infrastructure,” he said.

In addition, lapses in health insurance coverage due to unemployment may have also been a factor, he added.

“STDs threaten the health of too many people in America,” Mermin said.

“And, there is still lack of quality and stigma-free STD [screening and treatment] services” across the country, he said.


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