By Dr. Mercola
Cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) had been declining until the 1970s. However, a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1 reveals that trend has reversed. Some of the diseases that fall under the category of STDs are treatable with antibiotics, while others have no known treatment or cure.
Interestingly, whether a disease is categorized as an STD depends on a number of factors, including whether infections transmitted through sexual contact are also counted in the category. For instance, you may not think of the Epstein-Barr virus,2 responsible for mononucleosis, as an STD, but many times it is classified as one.
STDs are the most common infectious diseases.3 There are more than 20 different types that affect over 13 million men and women in the U.S. every year. Unfortunately, these diseases may spread rapidly as they often don't produce many symptoms, and the symptoms that are apparent often mimic other health conditions.
The causes are often bacteria, viruses or parasites that may be passed between sexual partners, from mother to baby during birth or breast-feeding, or from sharing infected needles. Through reports gathered from health departments across the U.S., the CDC has determined the rates of certain STDs have risen dramatically over the past several years and are now at a record high.4
What STDs Are Being Tracked?
The report from the CDC names three different STD infections: chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. These are the STDs that are reportable by law5 as they are considered important to the public's health. By law, they need to be reported by either a doctor or laboratory when they are diagnosed for the purposes of collecting statistics and helping to identify trends and outbreaks.
Overall, there are at least 50 diseases that are reportable to the CDC, including anthrax, diphtheria, hepatitis, measles and pertussis, also known as whooping cough.6
This means that not all sexually transmitted infections or diseases need to be reported to the CDC or other governmental agency for tracking. However, every state has its own list of diseases that must be reported to a state agency, which must also include the federally mandated reportable diseases.7 According to some estimates, there are nearly 19 million new cases of herpes and genital warts diagnosed each year, but those numbers aren't recorded or tracked by the CDC.8
One reason governmental agencies don't track all STDs is that tracking is expensive and time-consuming, especially for a disease or infection that has no cure and no certain way to demonstrate the date of infection or how it may spread. Herpes and human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes genital warts are two such infections. Any data the CDC has is as a result of states that require reporting, and therefore they are not a total reflection of the entire U.S.
The CDC estimates that more than 16 percent of the U.S. population between 14 and 49 have been infected with genital herpes, some of whom don't have symptoms and may not know they are infected.9 This may mean this estimate is very low, based on reporting requirements.
STD Prevalence on the Rise
Results of the CDC report indicate three of the more commonly transmitted diseases have reached record levels in the U.S. There were 1.6 million cases of chlamydia in 2016, 470,000 of gonorrhea and 28,000 new cases of syphilis.
Although all three have the potential of being cured with antibiotics, mutations of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria that causes gonorrheal infections have led to a high incidence of antibiotic resistance. Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, stated:10
"Increases in STDs are a clear warning of a growing threat. STDs are a persistent enemy, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond."
The CDC information on syphilis and gonorrhea dates back to 1941,11 giving the agency a solid foundation of historical data on those diseases. Symptoms that are easily identifiable may be confirmed with a culture or physical examination. However, the symptoms of herpes are subtler and you may not even present with symptoms that prompt a visit to your doctor.
Once a treatable and reportable STD has been recorded, public health officials are tasked with finding ex-partners and recommending they are tested and treated for the infection.12
Pregnancy Rates in Many Age Groups Drop
Interestingly, although the spread of STDs has risen, the number of teen pregnancies has dropped. Since 1991 the birthrate among teenage girls has dropped over 65 percent.13 Fertility rates in women of childbearing years also declined to 62 births for every 1,000 women.14 Dr. Elise Berlan, an adolescent medicine specialist at Nationwide Children's Hospital, believes it is likely related to increased access and use of contraceptives, naming condoms as the top method for teen birth control. However, according to the CDC:15
"Male condoms may not cover all infected areas or areas that could become infected. Thus, they are likely to provide greater protection against STDs that are transmitted only by genital fluids (STDs such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and HIV infection) than against infections that are transmitted primarily by skin-to-skin contact, which may or may not infect areas covered by a condom (STDs such as genital herpes, human papillomavirus [HPV] infection, syphilis, and chancroid)."
Following this logic:
- Condoms are the birth control of choice in teenagers
- The rate of teen pregnancy is dropping
- Condoms protect primarily against STDs transmitted by genital fluid such as gonorrhea and chlamydia
- Rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia are rising
It appears there may be other reasons for a reduction in teen pregnancy as rates of STDs normally prevented by condoms are rising, indicating genital fluids are being shared. This could potentially signal a decline in teen fertility. The Pew Research Center attributes the declining birth rate in teens to several factors, including a poor economy, better information about pregnancy prevention and an increased use of birth control.16
Additionally, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that, while more teens are using contraception, more teens are also delaying sexual debut, and fewer teens having sex.17 However, it follows that fewer sexual encounters and better use of condoms to avoid pregnancy would likely not lead to rising rates of specific STDs commonly prevented by condoms.
Untreated STDs May Have Devastating Results
Since many STDs have few symptoms and the outcome of untreated infections may be lethal, investigators are mandated to contact the infected individual's sex partners.18
Once the investigators have the contact information for any partners from the previous 60 days, they set about asking potentially embarrassing questions such as: How many partners have you had sex with in the past year, and were they men, women or both? Was sex vaginal, anal or oral? If the investigators have little information about the partners, they may resort to using social media contacts to find the individuals.
These efforts are necessary to prevent further spread of infections and to treat those who have contracted the disease. Men and women suffer from chlamydia in nearly equal numbers.19 Symptoms in men and women are slightly different, although the infection is caused by the same bacteria.
The number of cases of syphilis is also rising, but now affecting different groups of people. The CDC report found diagnoses of syphilis in men increased by 18 percent in a single year, with most cases occurring in men having sex with men.20
Women also experienced a 36 percent increase in the diagnosis of syphilis and there was a 28 percent increase in the number of newborns diagnosed. Infants infected before birth may trigger stillbirth, miscarriage or premature birth.21 Babies born with congenital syphilis may have deformed bones, anemia or neurological disorders, such as blindness or deafness. Nearly half of babies infected while in the womb will die before or shortly after birth.22
Syphilis is also deadly to adults. Left untreated it may affect the brain, heart and other organs, ultimately leading to death.23 The infection is often difficult to identify as the symptoms mimic other health conditions. The symptoms may include rashes, swollen lymph glands, fever, sores and muscle aches. These symptoms will subside, and the disease will progress silently to the end stage. David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, commented to CNN:24
"For the first time in many years, we are now seeing more cases of babies born with congenital syphilis than babies born with HIV. It means that women are not getting access to prenatal care, testing and treatment for syphilis. It's an unconscionable situation in America today."
Gonorrhea rates also increased, with the largest increases occurring among gay or bisexual men.25 Fueling the spread are special phone apps for men to hook up with men, which may be driving the increasing diagnosis of oral and rectal infection.26 In women, the infection affects the mucus lining of the reproductive tract, including the uterus, cervix and fallopian tubes.27
Men and women may be infected in the urethra, mouth, throat, eyes and rectum. Untreated infections may lead to permanent health problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and a life-threatening blood infection.
Greater Challenges With Gonorrheal Infections
Although theoretically gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that should respond quickly to antibiotics, the reality is that the bacteria has developed resistance to most of the antibiotics used to treat the infection. This may soon pose a major public health threat in the U.S. and is already called an emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) in several countries, including Norway, Sweden, Japan, France and the United Kingdom.28
WHO continues to monitor the development of antibiotic resistance in the bacteria that causes gonorrhea. In a news release, Dr. Teodora Wi, Medical Officer of Human Reproduction at WHO stated:29
"The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart. Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them. These cases [reported from countries using surveillance to track gonorrhea] may just be the tip of the iceberg, since systems to diagnose and report untreatable infections are lacking in lower-income countries where gonorrhea is actually more common."
With rising antibiotic resistance, the CDC has recommended dual antibiotic therapy to "address the potential emergence of gonococcal cephalosporin resistance" as they believe it is the "only remaining recommended treatment."30
Antibiotic Treatment Trends Toward Failure
Although I believe antibiotic use needs to be minimized, when used properly and responsibly, antibiotics can and do save lives that are threatened by bacterial infections. When antibiotics were first introduced for patient use, science didn't account for the ability bacteria have to mutate and essentially outsmart antibiotics. This is clearly what has been happening in the past decades as we now have nearly 18 different superbugs identified in the CDC's report "Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013."31
According to this report, 2 million American adults and children are infected each year with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resulting in the death of 23,000 as a direct action of the infection and more from associated complications. Unless there are changes to the way antibiotics are used and prescribed, these numbers are only going to grow.
This is essentially the evolution of bacteria as they struggle for survival. These microorganisms have taught each other how to adapt to the best pharmaceutical drugs, and they are winning the battle.
With little financial incentive to explore new antibiotic options, pharmaceutical companies are focusing instead on medications meant to be taken for a lifetime, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs. Talk of an end to the era of antibiotics circulates through scientific communities and popular media. Editor and columnist Sarah Boseley commented in The Guardian on the speed at which bacteria have accommodated to antibiotics, saying:32
"The era of antibiotics is coming to a close. In just a couple of generations, what once appeared to be miracle medicines have been beaten into ineffectiveness by the bacteria they were designed to knock out."
Stop the Spread of STDs and Antibiotic-Resistant Disease
There are several steps you can personally take to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease.
• Prevention and immune support
Preventing infections and focusing on naturally supporting your immune system will help you to stay well. Make positive lifestyle choices, such as eating a balanced diet, getting at least eight hours of quality sleep, staying hydrated and addressing your stress level.
Become familiar with natural compounds that have antimicrobial activity, such as garlic, oregano extract, colloidal silver, fermented foods, sunlight and vitamin D. Research has shown that bacteria do not tend to develop resistance to these types of treatments, offering hope for the future.
• Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. If your physician recommends an antibiotic, ask if it is necessary. Sometimes medications are recommended when other options are as effective, such as treating a nondebilitating cold or upper respiratory infection with quality sleep, vitamin C, zinc lozenges, staying hydrated and resting.
Purchase grass fed (antibiotic-free) meat and dairy products as these are an even greater contributor to antibiotic-resistant disease than medical overuse. Avoid using antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers at home as use contributes to antibiotic resistance and endocrine disruption.
• Get involved on the national level
If you live in the U.S., you have the option of writing to your representative or senator directly from your computer. Let them know how you feel about the overuse of antibiotics in food production, and urge them to take a stand for the future of human health by changing policy.
• Practice safe sex
The surest way to avoid an STD is to practice abstinence from all sex, including oral, anal and vaginal, according to the CDC.33 Using condoms correctly may help prevent the spread of STDs spread by genital fluids. If you have sex, be in a mutually monogamous relationship where you agree to have sex with only one person who agrees to have sex only with you.
Before having sex, talk with your partner and both get tested for STDs. These conversations are not comfortable, but your health is worth it!
Natural Options Support Your Health and May Help Prevent Outbreaks
If you do contract an STD, discuss your treatment options with your physician. Ignoring the issue will not make it go away and may have unintended but dangerous consequences in your life and the lives of those with whom you are in contact. There are several supportive remedies you may use at home to prevent outbreaks of STDs that cannot be cured, such as herpes, and support the antibiotic therapy your physician prescribes for those infections that have recommended treatments.34
Probiotics or fermented foods and prebiotics
Antibiotics to treat STDs upset the bacterial balance of your gut microbiome. The addition of friendly bacteria from fermented foods and the fiber that feeds them (prebiotics) may help to restore that balance.
This resin produced by bees may help genital herpes to heal faster when a 3 percent ointment is applied topically. In one study comparing the results of Zovirax (an antiviral drug used to lessen the symptoms of herpes infections) against propolis ointment, participants using the propolis saw their lesions heal faster than those participants using Zovirax.
A zinc cream topically applied to genital herpes may reduce the severity and duration of the outbreak.
An imbalance between lysine and arginine in your body may trigger an outbreak of herpes virus. Foods rich in arginine that may trigger an outbreak include chocolate,35 turkey, walnuts, peanuts and dairy.36 Foods rich in lysine include figs, pears, apricots, broccoli and cauliflower.
In one study,37 participants who took a lysine supplement suffered 2.4 fewer lesions than those who didn't use the supplement during the duration of the study. When a lesion did occur, the symptoms were less severe and the lesions healed faster.
When the extract is applied to the skin, it may speed the healing of genital warts caused by HPV. A proprietary extract ointment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently on the market.
A 5 percent cream used topically may improve the symptoms of genital herpes in men.