2017 was a record-breaking year in the US, but not in a good way. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017 saw nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, surpassing a record set in 2016 by more than 200,000 diagnoses. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC, says we’ve seen “steep and sustained increases over the last five years” in STD diagnoses. With that in mind, it’s not all that surprising that the US has the highest STD rates in the industrialized world.
The statistics are alarming. Between 2013 and 2017 there was a 67% increase in cases of gonorrhea, a 76% increase in cases of syphilis, and a marginal increase in cases of chlamydia, the most common condition reported to the CDC, with 1.7 million cases in 2017 alone.
These figures don’t include cases of HPV, the virus responsible for genital warts as well as several kinds of cancer. The CDC says that nearly every sexually active person will experience an HPV infection at some point in their life and that most cases go away on their own without causing problems. HPV is spread through anal, oral, and vaginal sex, as well as skin-to-skin contact. For men who have sex with men (abbreviated as MSM), HPV can lead to anal, penile, oral, and throat cancer. (Yes, penis cancer is a thing and I’m just as horrified as you are).
Why all this talk about STDs? Because, as the statistics show, it seems we need to up our safer-sex game. Experts have many theories of how we got here. Some say social networking apps like Tinder (or Grindr) have made it easy to find casual or anonymous sex. Others say we lack a general understanding of STDs and sexual health: doctors aren’t offering tests and screenings and patients don’t know to ask for them. One thing everyone agrees on is that we aren’t using condoms consistently and correctly, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing the “steep and sustained increases” Dr. Bolan spoke of.
To me, this points to a hard truth for our community: PrEP is not enough. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) helps prevent HIV infection if taken correctly (once a day at the same time of day) and tests show a 92% to 99% reduction in HIV risk when taken as prescribed. Note that PrEP does not completely reduce the risk of infection. More importantly, PrEP only protects against HIV and is powerless against gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HPV, and other STDs that actually make it easier to contract HIV.
PrEP is an important tool in our safer-sex arsenal, but when used alone is not enough to safeguard our sexual health. Instead, it’s best when used with other safer-sex methods like condoms, which help prevent the spread of a variety of STDs.
More importantly, we need to better understand and advocate for our own sexual health. For men who have sex with men, the CDC recommends regular testing for the following: HIV (at least once a year), syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, chlamydia and gonorrhea of the rectum (for receiving partners /bottoms), chlamydia and gonorrhea of the the penis (for insertive partners / tops), gonorrhea of the throat if any kind of oral sex has been performed, anal Pap smear for receiving partners / bottoms concerned about HPV infection, and a blood test for herpes. Vaccinations are available for hepatitis A and B, and an HPV vaccination is available for men up to age 26.
We’ve made huge strides in our battle against HIV and AIDS, but the sexual health war is far from over. Get educated and choose the safer-sex strategies that work best for your lifestyle. Talk to your doctor or visit Cdc.gov for more information and to find a clinic near you. Play safe!
- Brian George Hose has been an advocate for LGBTQ persons and issues all his adult life. He holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Shepherd University and looks forward to pursuing a Master's of Social Work with a focus in mental health. A former musician, Brian served as minister of music for New Light MCC for several years and incorporates music into social work practice. He lives in rural Western Maryland where he has amassed a sinful number of books, yarn, and books about yarn. He has been writing for Baltimore Out Loud since February 2016.