As pandemic surged, so did chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in Louisiana – NOLA.com

New infections of three common sexually transmitted diseases increased across the United States during the pandemic, and Louisiana remained among the states with the highest rates of spread, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis reached an all-time high nationally for the sixth consecutive year in 2020. And officials are speculating that 2021 will be even worse once the data are finalized.

At first blush, it appears the CDC report shows Louisiana made some progress in the fight against STDs, with the state reporting fewer cases of chlamydia and congenital syphilis between 2019 to 2020. But experts suggest a sharp drop in testing — due largely to the lockdown and supply shortages — likely means many cases went undetected.

“In the middle of the pandemic, no one could get tested,” said Patricia Kissinger, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Tulane University. “The clinics that were open and that were testing, many of them had low supplies.”

Louisiana ranked second for both chlamydia and gonorrhea in 2020, behind only Mississippi.

Cases of chlamydia decreased from 775 per 100,000 residents in 2019 to 709 the following year. However, chlamydia cases are often asymptomatic in early stages and are caught through screening, which happened less frequently in 2020.

Gonorrhea cases increased from 274 per 100,000 residents in 2019 to 333 in 2020. 

Syphilis cases among adults stayed stable, with about 15 per 100,000 reported in both 2019 and 2020, placing Louisiana 12th among states. Reported cases of congenital syphilis, in which the disease is passed from mother to baby, decreased slightly, from 68 infants in 2019 to 63 in 2020.

Louisiana has consistently ranked among the top states in the country for sexually transmitted infections. All of the STDs in the report are curable but can lead to permanent and serious health problems if untreated.

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Syphilis can cause paralysis, blindness and dementia in adults. Newborns with the disease can be stillborn or suffer from deformities, mental retardation or hearing loss. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause infertility and increase cancer risk.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Kissinger. “It’s like watching a train wreck – what can you do about it?”

A majority of treatable STDs occur in teenagers, Kissinger said, pointing to Louisiana’s sex education laws as a factor. The state has no requirement for sex education, but mandates that abstinence must be emphasized if it is taught.

“Places like New York and California where you have really excellent sex ed, you don’t see those rates,” said Kissinger.

At CrescentCare, a federally qualified health center with clinics in New Orleans and Houma, much of the outreach is centered around education and getting people tested, said Narquis Barak, director of the prevention department. The pandemic changed that, and even now, outreach for STDs, HIV and hepatitis C testing is not where it once was.

“We went from doing 600 to 700 HIV tests out in venues – bars, clubs, parks – to doing none during pandemic,” said Barak.

Walk-in tests for HIV were cut by 50% during the pandemic, Barak said. The health center tried sending STI kits in the mail, but the postal system was disrupted and frequent natural disasters made it difficult to reach people, he said.

Then there were the other health and social issues that were exacerbated by wave after wave of coronavirus infections.

“A lot of those have to do with mental health issues or low income, not having access to transportation, and also stigma,” said Barak. “All of these things were compounded in some way during the pandemic.”

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