Over just the past 10 years, the combined rate of the three common sexually transmitted diseases that are reported to federal health officials has surged by more than 40%. Today, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and primary and secondary syphilis occur at a combined rate of 729.8 per 100,000 people compared to 508 per 100,000 a decade ago.
All four STDs have seen rates rise for the past six consecutive years, and from the rates recorded in the late 1990s, syphilis has gone up by 350%, chlamydia by 118% and gonorrhea by 39%.
What political, cultural and societal trends are connected with the skyrocketing STD rates the U.S. is currently experiencing?
Poor Sex Education
Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are estimated to acquire half of all new cases of STDs in a typical year, and lack of comprehensive sex education may be partly to blame.
A patchwork of laws on the state level mean that young people in one state may get far better and more accurate education with regard to sex and sexual health. In only 20 states does law mandate that sex ed be factually and medically accurate, but even those states don’t have consistent rules about what that means, and most states allow parents to keep their children out of sex ed.
In 2017, about one-third of all federal money spent on educating teens on sexual health went to abstinence-only education programs, which have been shown in multiple studies to be ineffective in preventing young people from engaging in sexually risky activities.
Reduced Condom Use
Consistent use of condoms, especially among high-risk groups, such as people with many new sexual partners as well as gay and bisexual men, is one of the best ways to dramatically reduce the risk of contracting STDs. Unfortunately, the emergence of new methods of treating and preventing one specific infection — HIV — could be a potential contributor to rising rates of STDs other than HIV.
A 2018 analysis of gay and bisexual men across the U.S. found that condom use fell as the use of PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, increased, as did rates of bacterial STDs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.
Gay and bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men, have higher rates of primary and secondary syphilis and drug-resistant gonorrhea than men who have sex with women only, and these men accounted for about 2 in 3 primary and secondary syphilis cases in 2018.
Dating & Hookup Apps
Researchers are increasingly linking the use of dating apps to rising rates of STDs. Apps like Tinder, OkCupid and Grindr and even social media apps like Instagram and Twitter make it much easier to meet people for dating as well as for casual sex or hookups.
Health officials in multiple states, including Minnesota, Nevada and California, have linked increases in HIV and other STDs to dating and social media apps. Not only do these apps make it easier for people to meet each other, but it also pairs people who aren’t in the same real-life social circles, and the introduction of multiple new sexual partners is a huge risk factor in exposure to STDs.
About half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 have used a dating app at some point, and about 2 in 3 people between 18 and 29 use Instagram and/or Snapchat. These groups are among those with the highest rates of STDs.
Declining Public Health Funding
In cities and states across the country, dozens of free and low-cost health clinics that provide a range of health services, including testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and infections, have been forced to cut back their services or shutter entirely in the wake of state and federal cuts to public health funding.
Not only are health clinics that provide direct services to the public undergoing funding cuts, but the federal agencies that track STD rates and provide educational services are also seeing their budgets decline. For instance, the CDC itself has absorbed cuts to STD prevention funding of more than $20 million over the past 15 years.
In fact, about half of the states have indicated they’ve closed or reduced hours at STD clinics in the wake of budget cuts. More recent legislative developments have restored some of those funding cuts, though in communities where clinics have closed, the damage may well be done.
There’s no one single cause to pin on the recent surge of STD rates. Rather, the situation is a result of the factors discussed here and without a doubt many more. It’s clear that more study is needed to pinpoint the exact causes of this increase, but individuals can make an impact in their own lives by ensuring they’re getting tested and treated for any STDs they are at risk of contracting.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sexually Transmitted Surveillance 2018, Reported Cases and Rates of Reported Cases, 1941–2018. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/tables/1.htm
- Forbes.com, Research Confirms That Abstinence-Only Education Hurts Kids. (2017.) Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetwburns/2017/08/23/research-confirms-the-obvious-that-abstinence-only-education-hurts-kids/#61b849216615
- National Conference of State Legislatures, State Policies on Sex Education in Schools. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx
- Kaiser Family Foundation, Women’s Health Policy, Abstinence Education Programs: Definition, Funding, and Impact on Teen Sexual Behavior. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/abstinence-education-programs-definition-funding-and-impact-on-teen-sexual-behavior/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/adolescents.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STDs in Men Who Have Sex with Men. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/msm.htm
- Statista, Percentage of online users in the United States who have used a dating website or app as of January 2019. (2020.) Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/310344/us-online-dating-app-site-usage-age/
- Pew Research Center, Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/
- National Coalition of STD Directors, As STD Funding Stagnates, Rates Rise to All-Time Highs, (2019.) Retrieved from http://www.ncsddc.org/as-std-funding-stagnates-rates-rise-to-all-time-highs/