Rates are up for three common sexually transmitted infections — chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — for the first time since 2006, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control. There were well over 1 million cases of chlamydia in 2014, a 2.8 percent increase since 2013. The number of cases of primary and secondary syphilis, when the disease is at its most infectious, is much smaller at just under 20,000, but the CDC noted that rates of this STD have increased steadily since 2000 and jumped by 15 percent in one year. What's more, men make up more than 90 percent of reported syphilis cases, and men who have sex with men comprise 83 percent of cases where the sex of the partner is known.
If left untreated, syphilis can affect the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis), lead to visual impairment, and cause stroke and dementia, says Dr. Eloisa Llata, epidemiologist in the CDC's division of STD prevention. Syphilis also increases the risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV. Conversely, those who are HIV-positive are at a higher risk for getting syphilis due to their compromised immune systems.
Other infection highlights: Gonorrhea rates have gone up 5 percent nationwide but are highest in the South, with 131 cases per 100,000 people. Twenty- to 24-year-olds make up 33 percent of gonorrhea cases and 39 percent of chlamydia cases.
Experts have speculated that the rise in STD rates could be due to the social dominance of Tinder and Grindr and abstinence-only education programs (many of which teach kids that condoms don't work), but determining the "why" is complex.
"There's no single answer to explain why STDs are increasing this year," says Llata. "Additionally, a lack of resources at the state and local levels to conduct contract tracing and offer appropriate prevention and treatment services makes it difficult to keep up with an influx of syphilis cases."
Budget cuts in health care spending have likely had an impact, agrees Dr. David Bell, medical director of The Young Men's Clinic at New York–Presbyterian Hospital. "It's a very conservative time, especially for health safety net providers," Bell says. "If we want to tackle [STD] rates overall, it's about more than personal behavior; what we need as well as condom usage is a system of health providers that recognize it and screen for it on a regular basis. If we don't address access and get more people tested and treated, we'll never be able to decrease STIs in our communities."