New research reveals risky sexual behaviour, STIs are rising despite COVID-19 pandemic

Washington: New research has found that despite the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) lockdown restrictions, diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including gonorrhoea, secondary syphilis and mycoplasma genitalium (MG), has increased.

The new research was launched at 29th EADV (European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology) Congress, EADV Virtual. The research, conducted in two main STI centres in Milan, Italy, compared the number of confirmed diagnoses of the most common STIs in patients with symptoms for the period 15 March 2020 to 14 April 2020 following social isolation measures (lockdown) adopted to control the epidemic, with the same period in 2019.

The results revealed that despite a reduction in the total number of attendances by over a third (37%, 233 in 2019 vs 147 in 2020), the number of acute bacterial infections, most associated with men who have sex with men (MSM), increased during the observational period, including secondary syphilis and gonorrhoea. Cases fell, however, in the non-acute cases, such as genital warts and Molluscum Contagiosum.

It concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic, despite lockdown and advice on Social/Physical distancing, did not inhibit risky behaviours and that acute STIs actually increased.

Dr Marco Cusini, La Fondazione IRCCS Ca' Granda Ospedale Maggiore di Milano Policlinico, Milano, Italy, explains: "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. Gonhorrhea and syphillis are typically more prevalent in people in their 30s, so the 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. 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."

While gonorrhoea is still highly susceptible to the mainstay antibiotic treatment option ceftriaxone, the emergence of antimicrobial-resistant gonorrhoea remains of concern. Recommended combinations with antibiotics such as azithromycin should be avoided in the light of antibiotic stewardship, necessitating new treatment guidelines.

Gonorrhoea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It often, but not always, presents no symptoms in females and is mostly symptomatic in males. Common symptoms in men include urethral discharge and pain upon urination (dysuria), and women may present with odourless vaginal discharge, dysuria and pain during sexual intercourse. Symptoms usually appear between 1-10 days after infection. Gonorrhoea is on the rise across Europe, in 2017 alone, there were more than 89,000 confirmed cases (240 per day), of which MSM accounted for almost half of all the cases (47%). The United Kingdom reported 55% of all cases (75 per 100 000) followed by Ireland (47), Denmark (33), Iceland (29), Norway (27) and Sweden (25).

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