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Rising STD Rates Disproportionately Affecting Men Who Have Sex With Men

Martha Kempner

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that both men who have sex with men and young people are disproportionately affected by chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released 2014 surveillance data Monday documenting the prevalence of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. For the first time in almost a decade, rates of all three diseases increased from the previous year—chlamydia rates were 2.8 percent higher than in 2013, gonorrhea rates 5.1 percent higher, and rates of primary and secondary syphilis increased an alarming 15.1 percent.

The data show that both men who have sex with men and young people are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

These three STDs are nationally reported, which means that the CDC is notified of cases diagnosed across the country. Still, the numbers may be low because so many cases of STDs are not diagnosed.

In 2014, there were 1,441,789 reported cases of chlamydia (a rate of 456.1 cases per 100,000 population); 350,062 reported cases of gonorrhea (a rate of 110.7 per 100,000); and 19,999 reported cases of primary and secondary syphilis (for a rate of 6.3 per 100,000).

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The data show that both the number of cases and the rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea are higher in young people ages 15-24 than in any other age group. Fifty-four percent of the cases of gonorrhea and 66 percent of cases of chlamydia reported to the CDC occurred in those younger than 25. Though both young men and women are diagnosed with these infections, the long-term consequences of undiagnosed chlamydia or gonorrhea affect women more severely.

The CDC estimates that undiagnosed STDs cause infertility in 20,000 women each year.

“Young people are the unfortunate victims of society’s discomfort with sexuality and sexual development,” Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told Rewire in an email. “As adults we have the responsibility to provide them with comprehensive sex education and access to confidential health services so they can take personal responsibility for their sexual health now and into the future.”

The group most affected by syphilis, however, is men who have sex with men (MSM). While the rates of primary and secondary syphilis (the most infectious stages of the disease) have increased among both men and women, the data show that men account for more than 90 percent of all primary and secondary syphilis cases.

MSM account for 83 percent of male cases in which the sex of the partner is known.

“Gay and bisexual men face a combination of social, epidemiologic, and individual risk factors that can fuel high levels of STDs,” the CDC notes in a press release. “Higher prevalence of infection within sexual networks increases the likelihood of acquiring an STD with each sexual encounter. Additionally, barriers to receiving STD services such as lack of access to quality health care, homophobia, or stigma may all contribute to greater risk for this population.”

The CDC recommends that sexually active women younger than 25 be tested for both gonorrhea and chlamydia annually and that MSM be tested for all three reportable diseases at least once a year.

Testing is important because, if caught early, these diseases can be cured before causing any major health consequences or spreading to other individuals.

The CDC encourages expedited partner therapy (EPT) where it is available. EPT allows health-care providers to offer treatment to the sexual partners of someone diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea without examination or testing.

William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, emphasized the need for increased resources to spur more testing and treatment for STDs, especially for MSM.

“What we need now is a strong commitment from policy makers at every level of government to double down the investments that are made in protecting our communities,” Smith said in a statement. “Those on the front line need to have additional tools to address these epidemics.”

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