Risky behavior, STI cases on rise despite COVID-19 restrictions

MILAN, Italy — A new wave of the coronavirus pandemic is forcing many countries in Europe to restart their lockdown orders. While this may keep people safe from COVID-19, a new study reveals lockdowns are not keeping many from making risky choices in the bedroom. Researchers in Italy find more people are being diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) during lockdown than before.

“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,” Dr. Marco Cusini of the Policlinico di Milano says in a media release.

The study of two main STI centers in Milan, Italy finds infection rates for gonorrhea, syphilis, and mycoplasma genitalium (MG) all went up during the first month of lockdown in the country. Researchers compared cases from March 15 through April 14, 2020 to the same period in the previous year. Despite fewer patients coming in for testing (down 37% from 2019) the number of bacterial infections went up.

Study authors find most of the infections were found among men having sex with women, with secondary syphilis and gonorrhea cases being the most common illnesses. Cases of genital warts and Molluscum Contagiosum (a viral skin condition) did fall during this period.

“Gonorrhea and syphilis are typically more prevalent in people in their 30s, so infection may have increased because the concentration of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality in the elderly made the younger, more active, cohort feel protected and so less risk averse,” Dr. Cusini explains.

What are the dangers of being infected with an STI?

The study says one of the major problems with sexually transmitted infections are strains which become resistant to antibiotics. Researchers point to the emergence of an antimicrobial-resistant strain of gonorrhea, which the standard treatment option ceftriaxone will not be as effective against.

Gonorrhea infections are not always apparent in females but are mostly symptomatic for males. Common symptoms for men include urethral discharge and pain when urinating. Women may experience an odorless discharge and pain during sexual intercourse. The signs of gonorrhea typically appear one to 10 days after infection.

The first symptoms of syphilis usually present themselves within two to three weeks after sex. The main sign is a small, painless sore on the penis, vagina, or around the anus. These lesions may also appear on the mouth, lips, or fingers. Secondary syphilis, which researchers tracked in the study, refers to the progression of the disease and its symptoms. Luckily these symptoms are curable with treatment.

Researchers urge the public to keep monitoring their health for other signs and symptoms besides COVID-19. Recent surveys have found that one of the main coping mechanisms for people during quarantine is having more sex.

“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,” Dr. Cusini concludes.

The findings were presented at the 29th European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (EADV) Congress in October.

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