Uh-oh: Looks like more people could have used our Sex (Re)Education week last month. According to new government health data, cases of common sexually transmitted diseases—including chlamydia and gonorrhea—have continued to increase in the United States. The number of new gonorrhea cases passed 300,000 in 2010, while more than 1.3 million cases of chlamydia were reported.
The only bright spot in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual STD report is that syphilis rates have dropped, for the first time in a decade.
“STDs are hidden epidemics of enormous health and economic consequence in the United States,” states the forward to the ‘STD Surveillance 2010‘ report. “They are hidden because many Americans are reluctant to address sexual health in an open way and because of the biologic and social characteristics of these diseases.”
While both chlamydia and gonorrhea are easily treatable with antibiotics, they also pose special problems when it comes to detection and prevention. Chlamydia—spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex—is known as a ‘silent’ disease, because the majority of those infected show no symptoms. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless: The infection can seriously damage a woman’s reproductive organs, leading to infertility (complications among men, however, are rare).
Rates of chlamydial infection among women have been increasing annually since the late 1980s. The good(ish?) news is that the CDC attributes this rise in reported cases partially to better detection—an increase in chlamydia screenings, expanded use of more sensitive tests and better reporting standards. “But it may also reflect a true increase in morbidity,” the CDC notes. Overall, women are more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be diagnosed with chlamydia than men, with the highest numbers seen in those 15-24 years old; the CDC recommends that all sexually active women under 26 get an annual chlamydia screening.
Rates of gonorrhea in men and women are similar—though rates across races are not. In 2010, blacks were 18.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with gonorrhea than whites. Gonorrhea rates were also highest among those 15-24 years old.
Preventing the spread of gonorrhea is particularly tricky, because ejaculation doesn’t have to occur to transmit the disease—any contact with the genitals or mouth of an infected person will do the trick. And like chlamydia, those infected often show no symptoms. Even when a woman has symptoms, such as painful urination or bleeding between periods, they can be so non-specific as to be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection, the CDC notes. But untreated gonorrhea can lead to serious health problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and a condition where gonorrhea spreads to the blood or joints. Perhaps most disturbingly, cases of a drug-resistant ‘super gonorrhea’ are popping up more frequently.