Sexually-transmitted diseases make a comeback in Virginia, with a dangerous antibiotic-resistant twist

By: - September 14, 2018 6:01 am

Cases of gonorrhea, a sexually-transmitted disease caused by bacteria that has developed resistance to antibiotics, are up in Virginia and across the nation this year. (Image via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Image Library)

Cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis have been rising in Virginia and across the country, with data showing sharp increases in these sexually-transmitted diseases year-over-year since 2013.

And so far this year, that trend has yet to stop, according to Virginia’s preliminary 2018 data.

Already the state has more gonorrhea cases this year than compared to the year-to-date averages of the past five years, with 6,381 cases. And the same is true for syphilis, with 632 cases so far this year recorded in the preliminary data.

Overall, Virginia’s seen a 22 percent increase in chlamydia diagnoses, from 33,825 in 2013 to 41,377 last year. Syphilis cases jumped by 52 percent, from 327 to 498.

But the biggest jump has been in gonorrhea diagnoses, with a 71 percent increase in the same time period compared to a 67 percent increase nationally. The number of cases in Virginia jumped from 7,105 to 12,141, according to the Department of Health.

That’s an especially troubling trend because gonorrhea has been developing antibiotic resistance.

“Gonorrhea is a very smart bug that continues to develop resistance to every antibiotic used to treat it,” said Oana Vasiliu, epidemiology and surveillance manager with the Department of Health. “We’re down to our last antibiotic.”

Public health officials can’t use older drugs, either, because gonorrhea also has a long memory, Vasiliu said, and will remember the antibiotic used to treat it 20 years ago.

“It’s learning and it’s keeping that information in its genes and it’s going to cause a major public health problem if we run out of our last line of defense,” Vasiliu said.

The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance once of the biggest threats to global health.

If gonorrhea does become resistant to that last antibiotic, Vasiliu said, it will still be treatable. Patients will just require more intensive clinical care for providers to determine the best way to treat each individual case — which usually comes with a higher price tag. Right now, gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia are all pretty easily treated with antibiotics.

If they’re not treated, however, the sexually-transmitted diseases can cause major health problems like an increased risk for HIV or infertility, which is why public officials are so concerned about the rise over the past five years, Vasiliu said.

It’s not clear why the rates are going up, and Vasiliu said it might be due to better reporting of these diseases. Or it might be that they’re genuinely increasing, likely related to more people engaging in risky sexual behavior or just a lack of awareness about sexual health. Vasiliu said she thinks it’s a combination of both.

The typical demographics of the people diagnosed with the diseases are changing, too, and more women are getting diagnosed.

In Virginia, diagnoses of syphilis among women jumped by 125 percent between 2013 and 2017, a particularly disturbing trend because of the risk of infants developing syphilis. Infants with the disease are at risk for a slew of health problems. It can cause premature births and miscarriages, along with deformed bones in the babies, meningitis, or brain problems.

“It’s a pretty horrifying infection for it to happen in pregnancy and not be treated,” Vasiliu said, though she added that the babies can be fine if the mother is treated during pregnancy.

To combat the rising numbers, state and federal public health officials are trying to raise awareness both in the general population and among providers who may need to screen patients for a sexually-transmitted disease – especially pregnant women.

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.