Despite lockdowns, STIs and risky sexual behavior on the rise

·2-min read

While it may seem naive to think that lockdowns would translate into sexual abstinence, health care professionals had hoped that risky sexual behaviors would decrease during this period of social distancing. However, a study presented at the 29th Congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, found that sexually transmitted infection (STI) diagnoses actually increased during the first lockdown measures last spring.

To arrive at these findings, the researchers compared the number of confirmed diagnoses of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in patients with symptoms over a period from March 15 to April 14, 2020, corresponding to the first lockdown period in many countries around the world. The research was conducted in two main STI centers in Milan, Italy.

The results are compelling, as scientists have observed an increase in the number of acute bacterial infections, including syphilis and gonorrhea, over the study period compared to 2019. This is despite a sharp decline in the number of visits due to containment. Scientists explain, however, that many visits normally concern non-acute cases such as genital warts and molluscum contagiosum, a viral infection of the skin, diagnoses of which decreased.

"It was assumed that the lockdown would reduce the opportunity for sexual encounters and STIs. However, I was surprised by the number of new acute infections diagnosed in this short period of time....Whilst it is unrealistic to prevent people from having sex, even in this extraordinary pandemic, close contact during sexual intercourse inevitably involves an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 contagion.The findings show the importance of ongoing screening for STIs and the real benefit of having these types of services open and available during these unprecedented times," outlined Dr. Marco Cusini, one of the study's authors.

Gonorrhea almost never induces symptoms in women, while men experience a series of symptoms between 1 and 10 days after infection. Gonorrhea has been on the rise throughout Europe for several years, with more than 89,000 confirmed cases in 2017, with almost half of all cases occurring in men who have sex with men. According to the study data, the United Kingdom appears to be the most affected European country, ahead of Ireland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

Syphilis symptoms usually occur 2 to 3 weeks after infection. STI is also present in Europe (33,927 confirmed cases in 2018), with higher rates in Malta, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and Spain.