By MIKE MWANIKI
The World Health Organisation has warned that every day, there are more than one million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among people aged 15-49 years.
According to data released by the WHO, this amounts to more than 376 million new cases annually of four infections—chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and syphilis.
The WHO Executive Director for Universal Health Coverage and Life-Course, Dr Peter Salama says: “We’re seeing a concerning lack of progress in stopping the spread of sexually transmitted infections worldwide.”
He said this is a wake-up call for concerted effort to ensure everyone, everywhere can access the services they need to prevent and treat these debilitating diseases.
Published online by the Bulletin of the WHO, the research shows that among men and women aged 15–49 years, there were 127 million new cases of chlamydia in 2016, 87 million of gonorrhea, 6.3 million of syphilis and 156 million of trichomoniasis.
According to experts, these STIs have a profound impact on the health of adults and children worldwide. If untreated, they can lead to serious and chronic health effects that include neurological and cardiovascular disease, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, and increased risk of HIV. They are also associated with significant levels of stigma and domestic violence.
Syphilis alone caused an estimated 200 000 stillbirths and newborn deaths in 2016, making it one of the leading causes of baby loss globally.
Since the last published data for 2012, there has been no substantive decline in either the rates of new or existing infections. On average, approximately 1 in 25 people globally have at least one of these STIs, according to the latest figures, with some experiencing multiple infections at the same time.
STIs spread predominantly through unprotected sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. Some—including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and syphilis—can also be transmitted during pregnancy and childbirth, or, in the case of syphilis, through contact with infected blood or blood products, and injecting drug use.
STIs are preventable through safe sexual practices, including correct and consistent condom use and sexual health education.
In Kenya, for example, Health experts have warned of increased cases of the STIs in the last five years.
Speaking to Health Business magazine, the National Aids and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP) STI Programme Manager, Dr Catherine Ngugi said due to the high prevalence of the diseases, WHO introduced test kits for HIV and Syphilis known as Duo-Kit.
The Duo-Kits, Dr Ngugi noted, are limited to testing only pregnant mothers in public health facilities.
“Kenya is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to introduce Duo-Kits in public health facilities through funding provided by the government through NASCOP,” Dr Ngugi added.
A study carried out in Kisumu last year among 564 girls enrolled on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—drugs preventing HIV infection among those uninfected by the disease—revealed that a majority were infected by STIs after screening.
“The breakdown shows that among the 564 girls aged between 16 to 25 years, those infected with gonorrhoea were 38 per cent, Chlamydia 83 per cent while those with both gonorrhoea and chlyamydia were 16 per cent,” Dr Ngugi observed.
She added that in a bid to stem the tide in the rise of STIs, the Kisumu site has introduced partner notification services (PNS) where their partners exposed to STIs are treated in confidentiality.
The results, Dr Ngugi noted, reveal that a majority of the girls were engaging in unprotected sex. At the same time, she described the increased STIs among the youth as a “ticking time-bomb” bearing in mind that 60 per cent of Kenya’s population are the youth.
According to the WHO, timely and affordable testing and treatment are crucial for reducing the burden of STIs globally, alongside efforts to encourage people who are sexually active to get screened for STIs. WHO further recommends that pregnant women should be systematically screened for syphilis as well as HIV.
Experts say all bacterial STIs can be treated and cured with widely available medications. However, recent shortages in the global supply of benzathine penicillin has made it more difficult to treat syphilis. Rapidly increasing antimicrobial resistance to gonorrhea treatments is also a growing health threat, and may lead eventually to the disease being impossible to treat.
WHO generates estimates to assess the global burden of STIs, and to help countries and health partners respond. This includes research to strengthen prevention, improve quality of care, develop point-of-care diagnostics and new treatments, and generate investment in vaccine development.