America's STD Epidemic: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea & Syphilis Cases on the Rise

Condoms in a jean pocket
Condoms have a 98 percent success rate with perfect use, but with typical use they fail 15 percent of the time. (Image credit: artiomp/Shutterstock)

In Americans, cases of three common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — have together reached an all-time high, according to a new report.

In 2016, a total of more than 2 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were reported in the United States, according to the report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's the highest number of cases ever reported for these three STDs combined since the agency began tracking STDs in 1941.

Of these STDs, chlamydia is the most common, with 1.6 million new diagnoses in the U.S. in 2016, the CDC said. In addition, about 470,000 people were diagnosed with gonorrhea, and 28,000 people were diagnosed with either primary or secondary syphilis, the most contagious stages of the disease, in 2016.

All three STDs can be cured with antibiotics, but if left untreated, they can result in serious health effects, including infertility, stillbirths, life-threatening pregnancy complications and an increased risk of contracting HIV, the agency said. (Having an STD may allow HIV to more easily enter the body.) [Quiz: Test Your STD Smarts]

"Increases in STDs are a clear warning of a growing threat," Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said in a statement. "STDs are a persistent enemy, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond."

Just 17 years ago, cases of syphilis reached record lows, with only about 6,000 reported cases, or about 2 cases per 100,000 people in the United States, in 2000. But both cases and rates of syphilis infections have climbed every year since 2001, reaching 27,800 cases last year, or about 9 cases per 100,000 people, according to the CDC.

From 2015 to 2016, syphilis rates increased by about 18 percent, with the majority of cases occurring in men who have sex with men. But there was also a 36 percent increase in the rates of syphilis among women over this time period, the CDC said. In addition, there were about 630 cases of syphilis among newborns in 2016 — a 28 percent increase from the year before. Syphilis can be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy, and can cause serious complications, including stillbirth, premature birth, and brain and nerve problems in infants. It's recommended that all pregnant women get tested for syphilis at their first prenatal visit, according to the CDC.

"Every baby born with syphilis represents a tragic systems failure," said Gail Bolan, director of the CDC's Division of STD Prevention. "All it takes is a simple STD test and antibiotic treatment to prevent this enormous heartache and help assure a healthy start for the next generation of Americans."

Cases of gonorrhea also increased by about 18 percent from 2015 to 2016, with a larger rise among men than in women. The rise in gonorrhea cases is particularly alarming in light of this STD's increasing resistance to available antibiotics, the CDC said.

The rates of chlamydia increased by about 5 percent from 2015 to 2016, and this STD remains most common among adolescent and young adult females, the CDC said.

Reducing the number of STD cases in the United States will require efforts from many players, including state and local health departments, doctors and patients, the CDC said. For example, doctors and other health care providers should make STD screening and treatment a standard part of medical care, especially for pregnant women, and for men who have sex with men. In addition, everyone can talk openly about STDs, get tested regularly and wear condoms or practice monogamy to reduce their risk of acquiring an STD, the agency said.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.