Pandemic Lockdowns Did Not Slow Spread of Gonorrhea, Syphilis

  • Gonorrhea cases increased 10% and syphilis cases 7% between 2019 and 2020, according to a new report from the CDC.
  • STI test shortages, decreased in-person visits, and lack of insurance may have played a role, according to the CDC.
  • STIs can be treated and managed, but come with stigma. If untreated, they can lead to infertility, neurological issues, and other health problems.

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Cases of the sexually transmitted infections gonorrhea and syphilis increased between 2019 and 2020 due to “crumbling public health infrastructure” throughout the pandemic, according to a new CDC report.

The government agency’s 2020 STD Surveillance outlined the findings. 

Cases of gonorrhea, which infects the genitals, rectum, and throat, increased 10%. Cases of syphilis, an STI that can cause sores and rashes, increased 7%. Pregnant people with syphilis can pass the STI on to their unborn baby. Both STIs often have no obvious symptoms and are treated with antibiotics.

At the start of the pandemic, STI cases appeared to decrease. But this new data suggests the downturn in STIs was superficial and due to a lack of tests and in-person doctor’s visits, Dr. Leandro Mena, Director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in the report. 2.4 million total STI cases were reported in 2020, the report says.

Cases of chlamydia, a bacterial infection that often doesn’t show symptoms, appeared to decrease at the end of 2020, unlike gonorrhea and syphilis, according to the report. Mena said this could also be due to a lack of testing availability.

People with STIs can live normal lives with treatment that either manages symptoms or cures the disease. But the stigma of living with an STI can result in social isolation and domestic violence. If left untreated, an STI can lead to other health problems like


ectopic pregnancy

, infertility, and neurological issues. Untreated STIs can also increase a person’s risk of HIV.

“The COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of something we’ve long known about STDs: Social
and economic factors – such as poverty and health insurance status – create barriers, increase
experiences with health risks, and often result in worse health outcomes for some people,” Mena said in a statement.

In June 2019, the World Health Organization warned of an STI epidemic after its report found 1 million new STIs occur in people between the ages of 15 and 49 every day.

The WHO report said the STIs gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and trichomoniasis (a parasitic STI that can lead to genital inflammation) had the most new cases. In 2016, the year the data was collected, there were 127 million new cases of chlamydia, 87 million of gonorrhea, 6.3 million of syphilis, and 156 million of trichomoniasis.

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