For the sixth consecutive year, reported cases of the sexually transmitted diseases chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in the U.S. hit an all-time high in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report this week.
“Less than 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates in the U.S. were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and advances in chlamydia diagnostics made it easier to detect infections. That progress has been lost, due in part to challenges to our public health system,” Raul Romaguera, acting director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, wrote in an announcement accompanying the report.
According to the report, the U.S. has seen a nearly 20% increase since 2015 in chlamydia cases, which totaled more than 1.8 million in 2019. Additionally, gonorrhea cases have increased by more than 50% since 2015 to over 616,000 cases in 2019. And there were nearly 130,000 cases of syphilis in the U.S. in 2019, marking an increase of more than 70% since 2015.
Together, those STDs accounted for approximately 2.6 million cases in 2019, up from approximately 2.5 million in 2018.
Concerningly, congenital syphilis – which is passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy – has increased by 279% since 2015. In 2019, 128 infants died of congenital syphilis, and there were nearly 2,000 reported cases.
The report additionally notes significant disparities in the rates of reported STDs, with more than 55% of reported cases in 2019 occurring among adolescents and young adults 15 to 24 years old.
Meanwhile, approximately 31% of chlamydia, gonorrhea and primary and secondary syphilis cases were among non-Hispanic Black individuals, although they accounted for only 12.5% of the U.S. population, according to the report. Men who have sex with other men were also disproportionately impacted by STDs, the report says.
These disparities likely aren’t caused by differences in sexual behavior, but “rather reflect differential access to quality sexual health care, as well as differences in sexual network characteristics,” the report says.
“For example, in communities with higher prevalence of STDs, with each sexual encounter, people face a greater chance of encountering an infected partner than those in lower prevalence settings do, regardless of similar sexual behavior patterns,” the report says. “Acknowledging inequities in STD rates is a critical first step toward empowering affected groups and the public health community to collaborate in addressing systemic inequities in the burden of disease – with the ultimate goal of minimizing the health impacts of STDs on individuals and populations.”
While the report focuses on 2019, Romaguera said preliminary data for 2020 indicates the continuation of “concerning trends” last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts have noted the pandemic caused disruptions to services aimed at curbing sexually transmitted infections.
Romaguera said there’s momentum to change the alarming rates of STDs, however, pointing to a roadmap from the Department of Health and Human Services aimed at curbing new sexually transmitted infections through strategies employed by stakeholders including public health officials, government and community-based organizations.
“We must prioritize and focus our efforts to regain this lost ground and control the spread of STDs,” Romaguera said in a release.