STD Rates are Increasing and Women Have the Most to Lose
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise, with women at particular risk for serious long-term complications. The best tool for prevention is education.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year in this country, half among young people aged 15–24, and account for almost $16 billion in health care costs. As if these figures aren’t staggering enough, substantial increases were seen in 2014 in all three nationally reported STDs: chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
Approximately 1.4 million cases of chlamydia represent the highest number of annual cases of any condition ever reported to the CDC. More than one million of those cases were diagnosed in women, cites Dr. Elizabeth Torrone, epidemiologist in the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC.
Of course, many cases of STDs are not regularly reported to the CDC, so the numbers could be even higher.
Young women face unique challenges and risk factors for STDs, says Dr. Torrone. “Women are less likely to have symptoms of common STDs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, compared to men, and their biology makes them more vulnerable to their damaging effects,” she says. Untreated STDs, for example, can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can result in infertility and ectopic pregnancy.
In fact, the CDC estimates that undiagnosed STDs cause more than 20,000 women to become infertile each year.
If an STD is contracted during pregnancy, it can be passed on to the baby, Dr. Torrone adds. This means the baby can have conjunctivitis, pneumonia, brain damage, blindness, deafness, or be stillborn.
The STD HPV has been linked to cervical cancer and other forms of genital tract cancer, says Dr. Bradley Stoner, former president of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association who studies STD transmission at Washington University in St. Louis.
The good news is that “most STDs are curable and all are treatable,” says Dr. Torrone.
Because most STDs don’t have symptoms, getting tested is one of the most important things women can do to protect themselves from the damaging effects, says Dr. Torrone.
If you’re a sexually active women under 25 or have risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners, the CDC recommends requesting annual chlamydia and gonorrhea tests. If you’re pregnant, request syphilis, HIV, chlamydia, and hepatitis B tests early in your pregnancy. If you have new or multiple sex partners during pregnancy, get tested for gonorrhea early on. To view more screening guidelines, visit the CDC site.
Because of HPV’s link to cancer, it’s imperative that the HPV vaccination is rolled out for girls (and boys) before they become sexually active, says Dr. Stoner. This vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12-year-old [boys and] girls, as well as girls and women 13-26 years of age who haven’t been vaccinated, says Dr. Torrone. Dr. Stoner says the US is actually behind many other countries in achieving high rates of HPV vaccine coverage.
The CDC lists ways in which you can take control:
- Reduce number of sex partners
- Mutual monogamy
- Use condoms
Remember, if a partner is diagnosed with an STD, both of you should be treated before having sex again to prevent re-exposure and re-infection, cautions Dr. Torrone.
It might help to refer to the CDC’s STD awareness campaign: Talk. Test. Treat. Remembering these three actions is the key to protecting your health.
TALK: Talk openly and honestly with your partner and HCP about STDs
- Talk BEFORE having sex
- Tips to start the conversation
- Talk about when you were last tested and suggest getting tested together
- If you have an STD, tell your partner
- Agree to only have sex with each other
- Use latex condoms the right way every time [and use with sex toys or employ latex or plastic barriers for oral-genital sex – particularly for women who have sex with women]
- Not all medical checkups include STD testing, so don’t assume you’ve been tested
- Vaccines for Hepatitis B and HPV are available; ask if these are right for you
TEST: Get tested; it’s the only way to know for sure
- Find out which STD tests you should get, even during pregnancy
- If you’re not comfortable talking with your regular healthcare provider, find a clinic that provides confidential and free or low-cost testing
TREAT: If you test positive, work with your HCP to get the correct treatment
- Take all the medication your HCP prescribes
- Don’t share your medicine with anyone
- Avoid having sex again until you and your partner(s) have completed treatment
Why the increase?
One reason that some STDs are increasing more than others may be that detection methods are improving, says Dr. Stoner. But this is only part of the story. “Unfortunately, people are letting their guards down and are not practicing safer sex with each and every encounter,” he says. He also says that many experts feel that more people are using social networking apps to find sex partners, which means they often don’t know their partners very well before having sex. Therefore, the likelihood of having sex with someone who is infected is increased.
It’s also been surmised that people aren’t as afraid of STDs as before because people with AIDS are living longer. Many feel a sense of invulnerability.
Cuts in funding to public health clinics has also led to an increase in STDs, the director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention has said in the press. Lack of funding for care and increase of disease affects all of us.