The Story: In 2016 Americans were infected with the highest number of sexually transmitted diseases ever reported, leading to an oft-overlooked threat to life both inside and also outside the womb.
The Background: As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have long been an underestimated opponent in the public health battle. In 1997, an Institute of Medicine report described STDs as, “hidden epidemics of tremendous health and economic consequence in the United States,” and stated that the “scope, impact, and consequences of STDs are underrecognized by the public and healthcare professionals.”
“Nearly two decades later,” the CDC says, those facts remain unchanged.”
The CDC’s latest report on STD transmission estimates there are 20 million new STDs in the United States each year, and half of these are among young people ages 15 to 24 years. The scope of the problem remains hidden, though, since only four types of STDs are required to be reported to the federal government: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphillis, and HIV. In 2016 there were more than 1.6 million new cases of chlamydia, 470,000 of gonorrhea, and nearly 28,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis. (New HIV infections were not included in this report.)
Why It Matters: This is one of the most easily preventable health epidimics in America, since three of the major STDs—chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis—can be cured with antibiotics. But too often the diseases remain undiagnosed until they cause long-term damage, such as infertility and ectopic pregnancy.
These diseases are also a pro-life issue because they can affect development of a baby in the womb, be transmitted to the child during the birthing process, and even cause infant death. In 2016 there were 628 cases of congenital syphilis among newborns, with more than 40 deaths and severe health complications among the babies who survived.
“For the first time in many years, we are now seeing more cases of babies born with congenital syphilis than babies born with HIV,” said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “It means that women are not getting access to prenatal care, testing, and treatment for syphilis. It's an unconscionable situation in America today.”
There are several ways Christians can help on this issue. First, we should make our churches aware of the problem. We often underestimate how much impact we can have by simply ensuring our fellow believers are aware of pro-life threats. Second, we can encourage STD testing when counseling at-risk populations, such as young women in poverty. Anyone who counsels sexually active youths—whether formally or informally—should talk to them about the threats of STDs. Third, our churches can help subsidize STD tests for those who can’t afford it. Many crisis pregnancy centers already offer low-cost STD screening for both men and women. But we can help by raising awareness about such testing services and having our churches offer to directly cover the cost of screening for anyone unable to pay.
As Gail Bolan, director of CDC's Division of STD Prevention, told CNN, “This is a completely preventable problem.”
“Every baby born with syphilis represents a tragic public health system failure,” Bolan says. “All it takes is a simple STD test and antibiotic treatment to prevent this tragedy from occurring.”