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Even as the latest government statistics show record numbers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) throughout the U.S., a major health poll shows most people are oblivious.
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control works to tamp down spikes in STD rates through screening initiatives and other measures, a February survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that two thirds of adult Americans don't even realize STDs are a growing problem.
The CDC numbers are grim. Rates for many STDs rose from 2017 to 2018, but one of the most dramatic fluctuations is in the total cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis -- combined, the number represents an all-time high in U.S. history, according to the agency.
In 2018 – the most recent stats available – 2.5 million had an active sexually transmitted infection. This includes almost 1.8 million with chlamydia, nearly 600,000 with gonorrhea and 115,000 cases of syphilis, both primary and congenital (passed from infected mother to baby).
In fact, the number of infant deaths from congenital syphilis rose 22% in the U.S. from 2017 to 2018, from 77 to 94 deaths. Total congenital syphilis cases in infants rose 40% to more than 1,300.
But all demographic groups measured saw increases in many different diseases. Notably, syphilis cases increased 11% in men and 34% in women from 2017 to 2018.
"Large majorities of the public are unaware of how common STIs are among adults in the U.S.," the Kaiser survey states.
Only about one-third (36%) are aware that STIs have become more common over the past decade and few (13%) know just how prevalent STIs are in the U.S., the Kaiser study states.
Still, even though many adults will contract some form of sexually transmitted infection, very few are worried about it.
"Small shares of the public (8%) are worried about contracting an STI in the next year, with larger shares of younger people, ages 18-29, expressing concern (20%)," the Kaiser survey states. "About one in ten black adults (13%) and Hispanic adults (13%) and 5% of white adults say they are worried they may personally contract an STI in the next year."
The survey was national and randomized, collecting data from more than 1,200 people. Respondents were more likely to be female, which researchers planned because they asked some female-specific questions about reproductive health in addition to STDs, according to the methodology section of the poll.
The CDC says factors contributing to the rise in sexually transmitted diseases include established STD risk factors like drug use, stigma, poverty, and unstable housing. But the CDC also blamed state and local health departments for budget cuts.
"Limited resources make it challenging to quickly identify and treat STDs," states a CDC fact sheet. "Many state and local STD program budgets have been cut in recent years—resulting in staff layoffs, reduced clinic hours, and increased patient co-pays that can limit access to essential diagnosis and treatment services. People who cannot get STD care remain vulnerable to short and long-term health consequences and are more likely to transmit infections to others—further compounding America's STD burden."
How Can I Prevent STDs?
Using condoms can help prevent the transmission of many STDs, but no method of prevention is 100% safe, according to Melissa Conrad Stöppler a medical doctor and MedicineNet author. Sometimes, STDs may affect areas not ordinarily covered by a condom during sexual activity.
Prevention can also be difficult because many people will not show specific signs or symptoms of an STD even though they may be infected. While abstinence from sexual activity is the only absolute way to prevent STDs, limiting the number of sexual partners can help reduce risk of exposure to infections. Early diagnosis and recognition of infections as well as counseling about STDs and risk can help avoid further spread of infections, Dr. Stöppler said.
How Are STDs Diagnosed?
Many STDs are diagnosed based upon the clinical history and characteristic physical findings. Herpes and syphilis are two conditions that can produce identifiable signs and symptoms. Often the diagnosis of an infection depends upon identification of the organism, Dr. Stöppler said.
A number of different tests are available for STDs that are based either upon detection of the surface proteins of the organism or of the genetic material of the organism. These methods are more commonly used to identify sexually transmitted infections than culturing the organism in a petri dish, Dr. Stöppler said.