"Not long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination and better chlamydia diagnostic tests and more screening were available," Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the Centers for Disease Control's STD prevention group, wrote in a recent report. "That progress has since unraveled."
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported that the US has the highest number of STD cases ever this year. The number of cases has been on the rise for the past three years.
According to the military's September Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, chlamydia and gonorrhea, which haven't seen a spike since 2008, are currently increasing in its ranks.
Lt. Col. Orlando Ruiz Sosa, chief of preventive medicine at the US army base in Vicenza, Italy, told Stars and Stripes that the number of chlamydia cases on the base have increased by more than one third while syphilis diagnoses have doubled during the past decade. In addition, the number of gonorrhea cases at Vicenza have also doubled in less than a year.
In response to the increased STD rates at Vicenza, health officials have implemented a program to encourage more people to get tested. Troop members can now "self-refer" themselves for testing by going to a health center lab to get tested, without having to schedule an appointment, get a doctor's referral or obtain a sergeant's sick call approval. The patients can opt to have their test results sent to a confidential physician and positive results are given over the phone. Treatment and counseling services are also available.
According to health center spokeswoman Tamara Passut, the program "is just one more thing to help people access care, with the idea that earlier diagnosis will prevent spread."
"Chlamydia — for men it's an inconvenience. For women, it's secondary infertility," said Lt. Col. Eric Garges, director of sexually transmitted infection research at the Uniformed Services University Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, emphasizing the significance of STD testing.
The US military has significantly higher rates of STDs than the civilian population, even though military personnel have access to free healthcare, condoms and chlamydia screenings.
"The question is, ‘Why is the rate higher once they put on the uniform?'" Garges asked.
One theory is that troops are made up of young people, who are inherently more at risk for STDs. In addition, 44 percent of troops enlist from southern US states, which have the highest rates for gonorrhea and chlamydia.
"They bring their STDs with them," Garges said.
"We think when people put on the uniform, they're exposed to higher-risk networks," Garges said. "Your partners have other partners. It allows for diseases to move through populations."
Studies have also shown that there is high alcohol use in the military, which is linked to less condom use and riskier sexual behavior. In addition, in a 2013 review of studies on STDs in the military, researchers at Brown University's Women and Infants Hospital found out that servicewomen felt they would be perceived as sexually promiscuous if they insisted on condom use during a sexual encounter.
According to Ruiz Sosa, many people feel embarrassed and ashamed when they are diagnosed with an STD, as the stigma still exists.
"I've seen males and females crying," Sosa said. "I try to comfort them. I say it could happen to anyone."
Garges believes that the military needs to change its approach to combating STDs because encouraging troops to use condoms and practice safe sex has not been effective. The colonel also thinks that the military needs a new overall approach to deal with STDs. Advising troops to be careful and to use condoms has been ineffective.
"I've been working on this for years," Garges said. "We have the exact same problem we had 50 years ago. We have this high burden of disease and we've just sort of accepted it."