Health Officials Warn The U.S. Still Faces An ‘Ongoing, Severe Epidemic’ Of STDs

The United States’ persistently high rates of sexually transmitted infections are incurring billions of dollars in medical costs, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just in time for Valentines Day. The new report details what one of the CDC researchers describes as “an ongoing, severe, STI epidemic” in this country.

The U.S. has the highest rate of STDs of any nation in the industrialized world, with roughly 110 million total incidents of infection in 2008. Treating all of those infections cost the country about $16 billion, the CDC estimated. And the the ongoing issue is hitting young adults the hardest: Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 years old account for just 25 percent of the nation’s sexually active population, but as much as half of all sexually transmitted infections.

Health officials explain that, although the high cost of STDs is entirely preventable, Americans aren’t taking enough steps to safeguard their sexual health — particularly in regards to the HPV vaccine, which too few adolescents are receiving:

STIs take a big health and economic toll on men and women in the United States, especially our youth,” CDC epidemiologist Catherine Lindsey Satterwhite, who led the study of incidence and prevalence, told NBC News. […]

The story could have been different, insisted Matthew Golden, the director of Public Health Seattle and King County HIV/STD Program and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD. The good news, he said, is that rates for most viral and bacterial infections, including HIV, have stabilized or even dropped.

The “epidemic” Satterwhite speaks of, he said, is driven almost entirely by two bugs: HPV, and chlamydia. Chlamydia, a bacterial infection, is easily curable if it’s diagnosed. And there’s a very effective vaccine for the most dangerous forms of HPV that can trigger cervical, oral, anal, and penile cancers, and cause genital warts.

But, Golden argued, “we have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” by not pursuing effective strategies, such as school-based universal access to the HPV vaccine.

Satterwhite’s study estimated that HPV is by far the most common STD in the United States, with 14.1 million new HPV infections in 2008 as well as 79.1 million ongoing infections that were already prevalent that year. Yet previous CDC reports have found that unacceptably low numbers of Americans are getting vaccinated for HPV, as just about 35 percent of girls between 13 and 17 have received their recommended HPV shots in 2011 — a sobering statistic that contributes to the fact that HPV-related cancers have been on the rise over the last several years.


Right-wing hysteria surrounding the HPV vaccine has misconstrued it as somehow related to sexual promiscuity. In reality, it’s simply a preventative measure to protect Americans’ sexual health, and federal officials recommend it should be administered to girls and boys starting at the age of 11.

But conservative fearmongering around issues related to sexuality — which has contributed to a shame-based culture that pushes ineffective abstinence-only education on youth, rather than fully educating them about their bodies — has directly impacted the current public health epidemic. “How could we possibly have done this to ourselves?” Golden asked. “We have a solution; we have to make it happen.”