A decline in sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing among men and women in the early months of the pandemic may translate into a future surge in new cases, researchers said. A study conducted by Penn State and Quest Diagnostics reviewed more than 18 million STI test results from patients ages 14-49 from January 2019 through June 2020 and found that at-risk individuals and asymptomatic people may not have received timely testing during the pandemic, resulting in potential unknown spread.
The study, which was published May 19 in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, found that STI screening and testing for men decreased by 63% during the studied time period, and fell by 59% for women. Researchers in part pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that recommended halting STI tests except for patients exhibiting symptoms, which they said could have led to missed cases of asymptomatic infections, such as the majority of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections.
“The quickest way for people to spread STIs is to not know that they have one,” Casey Pinto, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine and researcher at Penn State Cancer Institute said, in a statement. “The inability to detect asymptomatic cases could have negative repercussions for years to come.”
The data showed that despite about a 60% decrease in STI testing in early April, the positivity rate for both chlamydia and gonorrhea infections were increasing. The researchers also noted that early findings suggest people continued to be sexually active with others outside of their household despite the declines in screening and testing.
Researchers said that once testing returns to pre-pandemic levels, they expect to see a surge in new infections, which could lead to long-term health repercussions such as infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease or even other STIs.
“This research highlights the importance of maintaining resources for STI management even in the midst of a pandemic,” Pinto said. “Moving forward, health care providers should strike a balance between responding to emerging crises and continuing to provide routine sexual health services. In addition, STI treatment and intervention efforts should be considered when allocating resources to manage public health emergencies.”