STD Report From CDC Has Mixed News

Syphilis rates are the lowest they have been since officials started keeping track in the United States, the government said today, but gonorrhea rates have started a troubling rise.

These figures suggest that targeted information campaigns work, and that keeping people in the dark about sexually transmitted diseases gives those illnesses a chance to take hold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its report, released at a meeting in Milwaukee.

The United States still has very high rates of sexually transmitted diseases or STDs, the CDC said in its report.

“And while some STDs, such as syphilis, have been brought to all-time lows, others, like genital herpes, gonorrhea and chlamydia, continue to resurge and spread through the population,” it said.

Genital herpes alone affects 20 million Americans.

Syphilis, a scourge for centuries, can cause chronic illness, madness and death, but is easily treated with modern antibiotics. Last year the CDC launched a campaign to wipe it out in the United States.

“Syphilis is going down, we believe, because of our concerted efforts at syphilis elimination,” Dr. Ron Valdiserri, deputy director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB prevention, said in a telephone interview.

The efforts include getting local churches and health authorities involved, better surveillance and screening.

A Syphilis Low

“Rates of syphilis are at all-time lows — they are the lowest they ever been since we began reporting in 1941,” Valdiserri said. The rate is now 2.5 cases per 100,000 people, down from 3.2 per 100,000 in 1997.

But that figure is the only good news in the report.

“For the first time in two decades we are seeing an increase in gonorrhea rates,” Valdiserri said.

The gonorrhea rate rose more than 9 percent from 1975 to 1999, after a 72 percent decline from 1975 to 1997. This upward creep might be due to increased screening and better tests, Valdiserri said.

“But it is also possible there has been a real increase in persons with gonorrhea. In particular, in men who have sex with men, we have seen several outbreaks of gonorrhea in the United States over the past few years.”

The United States looks bad when compared to other rich countries, the report said.

“The reported gonorrhea rate in the United States remains the highest of any industrialized country and is roughly 50 times that of Sweden and eight times that of Canada,” it reads.

The CDC says 15 million Americans become infected every year with an STD, half of which are incurable viral infections such as herpes or human papilloma virus, the cause of genital warts and cervical cancer. Such incurable STDs affect 65 million Americans.

It says 5.5 million Americans are infected with HPV every year, 3 million get chlamydia, 1 million get herpes and and 650,000 get gonorrhea.

“Approximately one-fourth of these new infections are in teenagers,” the report reads. It says 42 percent of new infections are in men who have sex with men.

Most Teenagers Have Sex

Valdiserri said the reality is that most teenagers have sex.

“By the time they are seniors in high school, 65 percent of American teenagers are sexually experienced,” he said. “We know that nearly two-thirds of STDs occur in young people under age 25.”

Yet another troubling trend is that gay and bisexual men are seeing a rise in STDs, which put them at higher risk of catching and passing on the AIDS virus.

“One of the studies to be discussed at the conference is a survey of men who have sex with men in the Chicago area,” Valdiserri said. “Forty-three percent, that is almost half these men, are unaware of the fact that syphilis can increase the rate of HIV transmission. That’s pretty shocking.”

STDs also can cause infertility in women and can be passed on to babies in the womb and at birth.

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