Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its latest data on sexually transmitted infections in the first year of the epidemic. By early 2020, the number of people infected with gonorrhea and syphilis had dropped, as you might expect – after all, it was a time of extreme isolation for many. Subsequently, however, the infection rate increased so much that by the end of the year, the number of cases was 10 percent and 7 percent higher than in 2019. In all, there were about 134,000 reports of syphilis and 678,000 reports of gonorrhea These were “amazing” increases, said Hillary Reno, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and medical director of the St. Louis County Sexual Health Clinic. “I can’t tell you how many primary care physicians called me recently and said, ‘I saw my first case of syphilis this year.'”
In fact, syphilis was almost eradicated in the United States by the year 2000; Gonorrhea reached its lowest rate of infection in 2009. Many doctors who started practicing at that time, especially their female patients, did not have experience in diagnosing this STI. According to Ina Park, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, “there is a whole generation of physicians and therapists who have never seen syphilis in women and children before.”
This is a significant problem: STIs can irreversibly damage the reproductive system. At least 20,000 untreated STIs in the United States each year lead to infertility. Syphilis can cause sores and rashes and, if left untreated for decades, can cause severe damage to the brain, heart and other organs. Gonorrhea can be painful and can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in women. Each condition is caused by bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics (although the drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea-causing bacteria is on the rise). Unfortunately, these are often asymptomatic, especially in women, and it can be difficult for them to see the symptoms of an infection, and it is easy to mistake some of these symptoms for a normal discharge or yeast infection.
The fact that STIs spread easily without being identified makes it important for them to be screened regularly. Yet that is not happening. “The epidemic has made STIs worse in America – in the first year, people stopped testing and treating,” said David C. Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, a trade association at the state and local STI health department. Collected its own data. (CDC data comes from a national surveillance system that includes mandatory lab reporting and sampling.) In addition, the communications tracer, Covid, was assigned to focus on sexual partner exposure.