The federal government recently came out with its 2007 figures on sexually transmitted disease. As one might expect, the news is not good.
First some numbers, then some thoughts about why our nation seems unable to give this epidemic the royal smackdown it deserves.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of STD Prevention, our massive STD problem is still growing.
Chlamydia infections hit a record 1.1 million in 2007 — and those are just the reported cases; the total number of chlamydia cases is probably closer to 3 million, public health experts say.
There were 353,000 reported cases of gonorrhea in 2007. This is sad because the gonorrhea rate peaked in the late 1970s and fell steadily for 20 years. In fact, we were wiping out gonorrhea so efficiently that the federal government set a goal of a mere 19 gonorrhea cases per 100,000 population by 2010. With a current gonorrhea rate of 119 cases per 100,000, we can kiss that 2010 goal goodbye.
The story of syphilis is even sadder. I attended "eradication of syphilis" news briefings in the late 1990s because this ancient disease's end seemed at hand. But syphilis began rebounding in 2001 (especially among gay men), and its 2007 rate of 3.8 cases per 100,000 marks its seventh increase.
The news on other STDs isn't good either. The CDC estimates 45 million people have incurable herpes and 20 million have human papillomavirus. Fresh HIV/AIDS data estimates 1.1 million Americans have it. Nineteen other lesser-known STDs are slinking around too.
You undoubtedly know the public health advice for STDs — don't have sex, don't have sex with an infected partner, don't have sex with too many partners, use condoms, get tested regularly. In other words, protect yourself because that's all anyone can do.
I have long wondered why our nation has such a measured (wimpy?) response to these deadly, costly, painful and escalating sex diseases.
One reason is that the diseases themselves can be hard to diagnose. If STDs turned our faces blue or gave us sore feet, we would know to go to the doctor immediately. We might even have a shot at identifying infected potential partners (e.g., stay away from limping guys who look like they're members of the Blue Man Group).
But STD symptoms often are nonexistent or easy to ignore, so people can stay infected for a long time, to the detriment of themselves and others.
Second, there seems to be a basic disconnect about how our "enlightened" sexual mores are helping to spread all this disease. I arrive at this point of view after reading and writing about sex and STDs for 30 years.
Evolutionary theory says — nay, insists — that it is normal, natural and healthy for human beings to have multiple sexual partners. To survive, men compete to spread their seeds around. Women want the fittest offspring, so they reject some sex partners in favor of others. But beyond this restraint, men and women — like other animals — are biologically driven to seek sexual release as often and with as much variety as they desire, says the scientific logic.
Since having multiple sex partners is natural, normal human behavior, it shouldn't lead to unhealthy outcomes, right? And yet, the unblinking facts say having multiple sex partners virtually guarantees acquisition of sexual disease, including some that are fatal and some that destroy fertility.
Behavior that easily can result in the destruction of life and lineage can't also be the "fittest." In fact, one can argue that in the 21st century, the people with the best chance for healthy reproduction are those who have the fewest sex partners.
And yet, "be faithful to one person" is one of our weaker health messages.
I think fighting STDs must include serious re-examination of our sexual concepts and mores. Otherwise, we may soon end up avoiding each other like the plague.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.