The number of sexually transmitted disease cases across the nation is at an unprecedented high. Nearly half of the 20 million new STD diagnoses made each year are among ages 15-24.
Chlamydia is the most reported STD, with more than 1.7 million new cases reported to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention in 2018, a 3% increase from the year before. In 2015, there were 1.5 million new cases of chlamydia, the highest number of annual cases for any condition — not just STDs — reported to the CDC.
There were more than 580,000 new cases of gonorrhea, the highest number since 1991, and more than 115,000 cases of syphilis in 2018. These three STDs are the most commonly reported STDs in the United States.
A report from the World Health Organization June 6 found that more than 1 million new cases of curable STDs are reported every day.
Elizabeth Torrone, an epidemiologist with the CDC, said 2018 was the fifth consecutive year the CDC saw an increase in STDs, according to WebMD. In 2014, there were 1.4 million diagnoses of chlamydia, 350,062 of gonorrhea and 63,454 of syphilis. The number of STD cases is an underestimation because many often have no symptoms, so people aren’t aware they are infected.
Director of the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC Gail Bolan said the sustained increase is worrisome because the CDC hasn’t seen anything like it in 20 years, according to an NBC news article.
According to Priority STD Testing, the CDC estimates that half of the people who are sexually active will contract an STD by age 25. The CDC recommends that people get tested for STDs at least yearly.
The Source Medical Clinic in Maryville offers confidential medical and sexual health services, such as STD testing and treatment, for free. Executive Director Gwen Knowles said the clinic has seen a definite rise in positive tests.
The Source Medical Clinic website says 47,000 new STDs were reported in Missouri in 2018 and 12,890 people living in Missouri have HIV.
She said one reason there are more positive tests is that more people are getting tested and are more aware and educated of the risk.
“They are more proactive about their sexual health,” Knowles said. “The college culture is a little more conducive to multiple partners and having more sex, so people 18-24 have the burden of the highest number of STDs.”
Assistant Director of Wellness Services - Clinic Services Judy Frueh said a good way students can prevent getting an STD is limiting and knowing their partners. She said anybody who has more than four sexual partners in a lifetime has a greater risk of contracting an STD.
“I think it’s one of those things where we don’t think about it until after the fact. Or we all feel that way that ‘It’s not going to happen to us,’” Frueh said.
Young women up to age 24 accounted for 44% of chlamydia cases reported in 2018. The CDC estimates more than 20,000 women become infertile each year due to undiagnosed STDs. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are all curable when detected.
A 2015 survey taken by people aged 15-24 showed that only 12% of them had been tested for STDs in the previous year. This age group accounted for 53% of gonorrhea cases and 65% of chlamydia cases, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Frueh said she hasn’t necessarily seen an increase in STDs on campus, but she noticed that more people are getting tested in recent years than they have in the past. The most common STDs at Northwest are chlamydia and gonorrhea. She said a large influx of people tend to get tested halfway through each semester.
“There’s a lot more awareness that people come in to get tested and screened than they used to,” Frueh said. “I think that’s a good thing that they come in. … I think there’s still people that are scared, but they still come in, so I think the stigma is not as prevalent as it used to be.”
STDs are also known as sexually transmitted infections. The term “disease” suggests an easily identifiable medical condition while most STDs show mild or no symptoms, according to the American Sexual Health Association. There is not a consensus on which term to use in the medical and public health community.
Frueh refers to them as STIs.
“It’s not really a disease,” Frueh said. “Most of the time it can clear just like any other infection, such as a sinus infection.”
Junior Megan Heil said she thinks dating apps help quicken the rate at which STDs spread, especially in college towns. She used Tinder, which launched in 2012, for eight months before she met her boyfriend. She said she noticed that most people using it were only doing so to find people to have sex with.
“I doubt (getting an STD) is something people worry about,” Heil said. “Even if they got one, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be able to get in touch with whomever gave it to them since there are ways to unmatch so quickly.”
Knowles, on the other hand, said she doesn’t think dating apps necessarily play a role in the rise of STDs. She is more concerned about whether or not people are safe when they meet strangers from the apps.
“We worry more about people getting assaulted because they’re meeting people they don’t know,” Knowles said. “We’ve had multiple people reporting assault. … What someone thinks is fun and consensual isn’t always the same for the other person, and that leads to problems.”
There is no data proving that dating apps contribute to the increase in STDs although some experts believe they do, according to Insider. Implantable birth control methods and new STD treatments may also play roles in the increase.
According to an article by the Atlantic, dating apps have changed the way people meet their potential partners, but not what they’re looking for: companionship and/or sexual satisfaction. Heil said she thinks dating apps were designed for people to meet and get to know others in a safe setting.
“People want everything from friends to hookups to serious relationships and everything in between on the apps. Sometimes you wouldn’t know what they wanted until you match with them,” Heil said. “I think each dating app has its own dynamic and purpose. … Tinder seems to be mainly for hookups and Bumble seems good for friends.”
Heil said people should meet their Tinder dates in public spaces to stay safe since it’s hard to know someone’s intentions through a short bio and a couple photos. Heil said she wasn’t surprised to see people using dating apps to meet people to have sex with.
“I think (the hookup culture on college campuses) is normal, honestly. You’ve got hundreds of 18-20 somethings living together, most of them on their own for the first time,” Heil said. “As long as they are both consenting and safe about it, I think it’s okay. But it needs to be a personal choice. No one should feel pressured into sex, because contrary to popular belief, not everyone is doing it.”
Meeting strangers is dangerous because the person may not be who they say they are and could be a sexual predator. These situations get riskier when alcohol is involved.
“Studies also indicate you are much more likely to use substances with sexual encounters when you’re not as emotionally involved with somebody,” Frueh said. “Take someone with you, not just as a designated driver, but to keep an eye on you, keep an eye on your drink and the decisions you’re making so you don’t get into a compromising situation.”
While she thinks dating apps increase the rate of spreading STDs, Heil said she thinks people are more aware about the risk of STDs in general because of social media and access to the internet.
“I even think it’s easier to detect because when you’ve got a concern you can just Google it instead of going to the doctors,” Heil said.
Getting tested for STDs may seem taboo, but Frueh said students shouldn’t be afraid to get tested. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis tests cost $20 at Wellness Services.
“It’s confidential, and I think almost everybody that gets checked are glad they did, even if the results are positive, because we can help them get through that process and treat it,” Frueh said.
Confidentiality has been a guarantee with all STD tests and screenings due to a rule added to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act in 2002, according to “Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.” It protects personal privacy, which is especially important for minors who don’t want their parents, or others, to know.
Health professionals recognize that minors wouldn’t seek health care if it wasn’t confidential, and that could have negative effects for them and society, according to the same journal.
Knowles said people should follow the CDC guidelines and get screened for STDs every year; it should be as normal as getting any other kind of check up.
“I just think sexual health is really important, and you have to be the best advocate for yourself and your sexual health,” Knowles said.