A scratchy throat and many people start to panic. Tea is made, throat lozenges are obtained, and the family doctor is contacted. But when it comes to intimate complaints - an itching or burning sensation below the belt - there is often an uncomfortable silence. It seems as if the quiet SOS signals from our private parts seep into our private parts before they reach the doctor's office in time.
The German STI Society reports increasing cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Germany, particularly syphilis. "Overall, you can say that syphilis has been increasing since the year 2000. Back then there were 800 cases, today there are over 8,000," explains Norbert Brockmeyer, President of the STI Society.
Syphilis manifests itself through rashes and, in the late stages, severe damage to organs and the nervous system.
Syphilis also affects babies in the United States
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) recorded an increase in reported syphilis cases from 5,330 in 2013 to 8,309 in 2022 and for hepatitis B from 715 to 16,635 cases. The number of new HIV infections remained stable at around 1,800 cases annually.
A similar trend is emerging in the United States with syphilis. The CDC recently reported a sharp increase in syphilis cases in newborns. Over 3,700 babies were affected last year, more than ten times as many as a decade ago and a 32 percent increase from 2021. The CDC emphasizes that 90 percent of these cases could have been prevented through testing and treatment of mothers during pregnancy.
Social media makes sexual contacts easier
Brockmeyer attributes the increase in STI cases in Germany to the easier establishment of sexual contacts through digital media. Although condom use is stable, the rate of STIs is increasing among heterosexual as well as homosexual and bisexual people.
“You can reach sexual contacts digitally. This creates the opportunity to make sexual contacts more quickly,” explains Brockmeyer.
Silke Klumb from Deutsche Aidshilfe notes that the frequency of certain STIs depends on the group, influenced by sexual behavior, number of partners and test frequency. For example, the number of HIV diagnoses in Germany, especially among gay and bisexual men, has been declining since 2007.
Preventative medications - a blessing and a curse at the same time
Different strategies are required for prevention. Condoms offer extensive protection against STIs. There is a vaccination against some pathogens such as hepatitis B.
People who suspect they have an STI should get tested to avoid spreading the pathogen. There are also certain medications such as Doxy-PrEP, an antibiotic used to prevent certain STIs such as chlamydia and syphilis, that people who have frequent unprotected sexual contact can take.
So-called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can also be taken to prevent HIV infections. However, this often means that condoms are not used and the risk of other STIs increases again. Silke Klumb warns against the widespread use of Doxy-PrEP due to costs and side effects, among other things.
Experts are calling for more information about swingers
Brockmeyer emphasizes the need for education in all age groups. “We also have room for improvement with the older ones.” He points out that the highest rates of STIs such as chlamydia occur at younger ages, but emphasizes that there are also high rates among those over 55 to 60 years old.
“Most STIs cause no symptoms 80 percent of the time,” says Brockmeyer. As a result, many sufferers do not go to the doctor. Practical solutions such as home tests for HIV or kits for self-collection of samples, which should be made accessible via online shops and health authorities, are important. “There needs to be more education in the swinging sector, both gay and heterosexual.”
Many people underestimate their personal risk
Misconceptions and myths often arise when it comes to STIs. As a result, many people estimate their personal risk of getting an STI to be significantly lower than it actually is.
"Although chlamydia infection is the most common bacterial STI in the group of adolescents and young adults, only eight percent of those surveyed rate its risk as (absolutely) likely," emphasizes Johannes Breuer from the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA).
Removing taboos from STIs and raising awareness are therefore essential. "All people should have the knowledge and the opportunity to take good care of themselves and their sexual health. This includes supportive offers for health promotion and prevention."