Most People Carrying STDs Don't Know It

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 12, 2002 -- A new study shows that a lot more people carry -- and spread -- sexually transmitted diseases than once thought. Even scarier is the finding that most of these people don't even know they are infected.


A report in the Feb. 13 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that one in 12 adults in Baltimore carries gonorrhea or chlamydia. These numbers suggest that most people with these sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) go untreated.


Untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia cause lasting pelvic pain, infertility, and ectopic pregnancies that can be deadly to women. These diseases also make it much easier for a person to get -- and spread -- HIV infection.


"We believe it is prudent to plan appropriate public-health actions in response to the high prevalence rates we have detected," write Charles F. Turner of the Research Triangle Institute and colleagues. "[This] might include screening or routine testing in health care settings for the entire population of young adults, including persons who formerly would be considered to be at low risk of infection."


Turner's team asked a random sample of Baltimore residents to fill out a questionnaire and provide a urine sample. The samples were tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Those tested were able to call a special number to get their test results and, if needed, to get free treatment.


Surprisingly, most of the people found to be infected did not report the typical symptoms of STDs -- painful urination and genital discharge. This suggests that people may not be able to tell if they've been infected unless they get tested.


One in seven black women was infected with an STD, suggesting that this segment of the population is at particularly high risk.


In an editorial accompanying the study, Indiana University researcher J. Dennis Fortenberry, MD, says doctors aren't doing enough to stop the spread of STDs.


"It is clear that [doctors] can do a better job with sexual-health risk assessments, STD screening, and treatment, and partner notification and treatment," he writes. "Embarrassment on the part of the patient or [doctor] or poor assessment of sexual-health risk are common but not satisfactory reasons for avoiding this task."