Health & Fitness

New drugs, vaccines don’t seem to stop deadly sexually transmitted infections

The rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) reported every year by federal and state agencies have increased significantly over the last decade. As medical providers, it is our duty to ask ourselves why this is happening and how we can improve this current health care problem.

Dr. Gabriela Moraru.jpg
Gabriela Moraru, M.D., is a pediatric infectious disease specialist in fellowship training within the University of Miami Health System. umiamihealth.org

Back in the 1960s, the sexual revolution was brought to the forefront and the topic of sex was no longer as taboo. With the decades that went by, a feeling of sexual freedom and diversity in sexual orientation became more and more prevalent, but so did STIs. By the time we entered the ‘80s and ‘90s, we began to feel the global impact of HIV/AIDS. By the beginning of the millennium, we began to see an increasing number of syphilis cases among adults and in parallel, an increase in the number of congenital syphilis cases (an infection that is acquired by the newborn from the infected mother).

While we live in an era of incredible technological advancement and pharmaceutical success, the discovery of new drugs and vaccines do not seem to stop STIs from continuing to spread, causing illness or death. The most recent CDC report from 2017 estimated an annual 1.7 million cases of chlamydia trachomatis, more than half a million cases of gonorrhea, and approximately 30,000 cases of syphilis.

The HIV rate has significantly decreased since the illness was first recognized; however, in 2015 close to 1.1 million people at and above the age of 13 in the U.S. were living with the disease. Among these individuals, it is estimated that 160,000 live with HIV without any knowledge of their infection.

There are a multitude of reasons why we may be seeing an increase in STIs, including lack of accessibility to healthcare, poverty, drug abuse, and sex trafficking to name a few. Yet the one factor that can slow down this upward trend is a very simple one — becoming educated about the risks of acquisition of sexually transmitted infections.

Symptoms of an STI might seem benign initially or might go away with mild discomfort or without any therapy, but their consequences can be felt years later. In men, gonorrhea can manifest with urethritis (discharge and pain with urination) and anorectal lesions that will lead to future complications if left untreated. In turn, herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2) is the virus that survives in a dormant stage inside your lymphatic nodes forever and reactivates when your immune system is weaker. Herpes, along with chlamydia, can bring major complications to young men and women such as infertility and chronic sexual dysfunctions. When talking about the lasting effects of syphilis, women should know that it can be linked to not only their fertility, but with the risk that their unborn child may carry the sequelae of the infection for the rest of their lives.

As a result, everyone — men and women alike — can benefit from improved sexual education and understanding the infectious risk existing out there and seeking immediate medical attention whenever you have any concerns.

Gabriela Moraru, M.D., is a pediatric infectious disease specialist in fellowship training within the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealth.com/patients/pediatrics.
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