The impact of the global coronavirus pandemic has been felt throughout the world since the virus came about. However, not all of it has been as expected.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on sexually transmitted infections throughout the world. Particularly, in the United States of America, the pandemic has greatly affected the number of newly diagnosed cases of sexually transmitted infections, but not as expected. STIs continue to rise well beyond the number recorded for years before 2020. The rise in the cases of newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections, particularly after 2020, can be attributed to several factors, which include the closing of STI clinics, reduced screening, and limited resources.
Even with the strict stay-at-home orders in place throughout the region, the overall cases of diagnosed STIs, particularly Gonorrhea, Syphilis, and HIV, have continued to rise. This dramatic and unexpected result is a culmination of several key factors playing together, most of which are explained below.
THE IMPACT OF A PANDEMIC ON SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS
As mentioned before, the global pandemic of coronavirus has affected, among many other things, the number of annual, newly diagnosed cases of sexually transmitted infections. It was hypothesized before that the number of STI cases should drop as the strict no-contact regulations during the early stages of the pandemic barred most human contact. However, the result is far from the expected.
During the early course of the pandemic, the number of STIs diagnosed fell as expected due to several measures of limiting human contact. Other factors may have included decreased surveillance and a general lack of resources. However, within a few months, this trend reversed and the number of STIs diagnosed increased dramatically.
Many sexual health clinics closed down during the pandemic so that manpower and resources could be directed toward fighting the growing global threat. Other clinics reduced patient visits to patients with symptoms only. These developments meant fewer people were visiting sexual health clinics for regular checkups. They also meant that many people would go undiagnosed as most STIs take a lot of time before any of their symptoms appear.
A general lack of resources and a shift of manpower and resources to help in the fight against coronavirus also meant that fewer resources were left to deal with the STI problem in the country. One research from May 2020 suggests that as the number of tests administered for COVID-19 increased, the number of tests administered to diagnose STIs fell dramatically. This study revealed that by mid-2020, the number of tests administered to diagnose STIs dropped by a staggering 75%!
However this initial decrease in STI cases soon reversed and the number of STIs rose across the country. This is peculiar because stay-at-home policies were designed to limit human contact during the early course of the pandemic. However, it seems that most of these regulations were not successful in keeping people from regularly getting into contact with each other and also indulge in casual sexual activity with frequently newer partners.
There are of course other reasons for this odd result as well. Some of the factors which contributed to the initial decrease in the cases of STIs after 2020 (since the start of the pandemic) were also the reason for its rise by mid-2020. Sexual health clinics shutting down and a lack of resources also meant that less people with STIs were getting diagnosed and receiving the help they need. More and more people went undiagnosed until they developed symptoms and finally reported to the clinics that were still operational.
While the rise in number of cases seems like a general trend for all STIs since the start of the pandemic, this is not the case for every sexually transmitted infection. In fact, the number of diagnosed cases of Chlamydia is still on the low and continues to drop as the pandemic persists.
STI DETECTION DURING THE PANDEMIC
As stated before, diagnosed cases of Chlamydia, unlike most other STIs, have seen a rapid decrease in number since the start of the pandemic. However, experts believe that this reduction in the cases of Chlamydia is not due to a decrease in the number of new infections but rather a severe lack of testing and management.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection of the genitals that is spread mostly through unprotected sexual contact. The symptoms of this infection include pain while peeing, pain during sexual intercourse, painful menses, and discharge from the genitals. However, these symptoms do not appear in every person who is infected with Chlamydia. Moreover, the symptomatic stage of the disease may come about very late and the infected person may go without being diagnosed for a very long time.
This is probably why the number of cases of Chlamydia decreased initially during the pandemic and continues to decrease even now as the pandemic persists. Other sexually transmitted infections, however, did not share the same trend.
Syphilis and Gonorrhea are two other sexually transmitted infections that have experienced altering trends as influenced by the pandemic. While the number of diagnosed cases for these diseased as well fell initially during the pandemic, these numbers are now on the rise. According to the CDC, the number of diagnosed cases in 2020 for gonorrhea went up by 10% and for syphilis by 7% as compared to 2019, studies show.
This increase in number of diagnosed cases is most probably due to decreased testing during the pandemic, a general lack of resources, and the fact that these disease have a much stronger symptomatic stage which may come about sooner than that of chlamydia.
People infected with syphilis and gonorrhea developed troubling symptoms soon after their infection which led them to visit sexual health clinics, thus, accounting for the dramatic increase in their statistics.
Moreover, the number of diagnosed cases of congenital syphilis have also increased since the onset of the pandemic. This is because the rate of primary and secondary syphilis went up by 24% among women of reproductive age group. A total of 15% increase in the number of cases of congenital syphilis in 2020 as compared to 2019 has been reported. This situation is drastic because an increase in the number of congenital syphilis is also directly related with the number of deaths in newborn due to syphilis related complications.
ARE SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS CURABLE?
With the rising number of sexually transmitted infections, it’s no wonder that the topic of STIs have become a common scare among the population. While the situation seems drastic and frightening, it’s not all that bad.
Whether an STI is curable or not depends on the causative agent and the nature of the disease, along with the general health condition of the patient. Most sexually transmitted infections which are caused by bacteria and parasites are generally curable. This is because sophisticated medicine against these pathogens are already in use which are highly effective in completely eliminating these pathogens from the body.
Moreover, bacteria and parasites do not have highly sophisticated mechanisms of hiding from the immune system as some viruses do, which is why it is easier to eliminate bacteria from the body as compared to viruses.
There is a growing concern about rising antibiotic resistance – the ability of bacteria to resist elimination by antibacterial drugs. However, antibiotic resistance, as scary as it sounds, does not mean that STIs caused by bacteria cannot be eliminated entirely from the body.
STIs caused by viruses, on the other hand, are generally severe and harder to treat. Most of these infections are also incurable, meaning that while these infections can be treated and managed to a great extent they cannot be eliminated entirely from the human body. This is because viruses, unlike other pathogens, are great at hiding from the body’s immune system. Viruses incorporate their own genetic material into human cells and replicate using the body’s resources. They can also hide in the ganglions where the immune system cannot detect or attack them. This is the reason why diseases like HIV and Herpes are incurable.
However, being incurable does not mean that these diseases cannot be managed properly. With proper care and prompt treatment, patients with HIV and Herpes can have a normal life with minimal symptomatic outbursts.
WHAT TO DO IF I HAVE A SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTION?
Most sexually transmitted infections have an asymptomatic period before any cardinal symptoms of the disease arise. This is the reason why it is so important to get regular checkups for STIs if you are sexually active. However, sometimes STIs can find their way to people even after they take proper precautions.
It is extremely important to visit your healthcare provider if you develop any signs or symptoms of an STI. Any signs or symptoms that seem unusual and unprecedented also warrant a prompt visit to your doctor.
If you have been diagnosed with an STI, remember that it is not the end of your life. Almost all STIs, while they may not be completely curable, are still extremely manageable with proper medication. Ensure that you take the medications as prescribed. Also, ensure that you inform all your sexual partners of your newly diagnosed condition and suggest they visit their doctors for a checkup so that the spread of STIs can be stopped.