You might not hear much about syphilis, but the highly contagious disease is on the rise, along with other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
In 2016, more than 2 million cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia were reported nationwide — the highest number ever — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
LGBTQ healthcare group Howard Brown Health reported a 28 percent increase in syphilis cases at its Chicago clinics in 2016. Gonorrhea and chlamydia only slightly increased, according to the center’s 2017 epidemiology report.
Michael Angarone, DO, an infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine, says he’s also noticed an increase of STI diagnoses among his patients — especially syphilis. However, he’s uncertain if this is due to an increase in testing or in new infections.
The STI increase is related, in part, to unsafe sexual contact practices among younger age groups, Angarone says. However, he adds, older age groups also had an increase in STI cases, so risky behavior must be curbed across age brackets.
Roughly half of all new STIs are from those aged 15 to 24, according to CDC estimates. This age group was also responsible for 63 percent of reported chlamydia cases in 2016.
Many people feel shy about discussing STIs with their partner, Angarone says. “We’re afraid to tell someone, ‘I had a herpes outbreak once,’ or ‘I had an STI in the past, but I was treated and I know that I’m negative.’ We feel that person is going to judge us or that it might ruin the moment.” Yet, disclosure and testing are important, as STIs can cause serious health problems, including infertility and increased risk for HIV.
The social stigma of STIs is still strong, but Angarone says he tells each patient he sees that they’re already doing the right thing: talking about it and getting tested.
Originally Published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.