There is a ‘worrying’ resurgence of sexually transmitted infections in GautengThe Gauteng Department of Health recorded an increase in newly acquired sexually transmitted infections. (Photo: Pexels)

There is a ‘worrying’ resurgence of sexually transmitted infections in Gauteng

News & Features

There’s a comeback of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in South Africa and around the world. The Gauteng Department of Health recently reported an increase of newly acquired STIs, in particular gonorrhoea and chlamydia. This spike in cases call for management guidelines and awareness programmes to be reviewed, reports Ufrieda Ho.

A rise in reported cases of sexually transmitted infections in Gauteng in 2023 is a wake-up call that control and management strategies are not keeping pace with the growing disease burden in South Africa’s most populous province.

“The Gauteng information confirms the rise in STIs that we are seeing in South Africa and across the world, including in the United States and Canada,” said Dr Nomathemba Chandiwana, a director and principal scientist at Ezintsha Research Centre at Wits University. She is also a co-author of the 2022 guidelines on the management of sexually transmitted infections produced by the Southern Africa HIV Clinicians Society.

Chandiwana said any increase in STIs should raise alarms because it means “we simply don’t have control over the things we thought we had under control”.

Related Posts

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2022 noted that countries reported low coverage for preventive, testing and treatment services related to  STIs, because of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. The WHO confirmed that this had led to a “resurgence of STIs and the emergence of non-classical STIs [such as Shigella sonnei, hepatitis A, Neisseria meningitidis, Zika and Ebola] globally”. It also reported that currently more than 1 million new STIs are acquired around the world each day “posing a significant global health challenge”.

Since the middle of 2023, the WHO has pushed for low-cost point of care tests to be more readily available in low and middle income countries, saying this would improve screening and diagnosis, data collection and make STI services more effective. South Africa has not made such tests accessible, still relying on a syndromic approach, which is clinical diagnosis made by assessing a patient’s symptoms and other visible signs.

New public health threats

Chandiwana said a review of STI treatment and management guidelines is necessary because the rising numbers pose significant new public health threats. Of particular concern, she said, is that having  STIs pushes up a person’s risk to contract HIV, which is “a chronic and serious disease” as well as developing other long term or irreversible medical risks, including reproductive complications.

Earlier in February, the Gauteng Department of Health reported that the incidence of Male Urethritis Syndrome (MUS) in men aged 15 to 49 in the province had increased from 12% in 2020 to 15% in 2023. The department did not provide actual figures for the comparison, which is also somewhat complicated by the fact that in 2020 there were strict COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions in place.

The department’s information from 2023 showed that 167 109 males aged 15 to 49 visited health facilities across the province from April to December. Of these patients, 67 400 (40% of the 167 109) were treated for MUS.

The diagnosis of MUS is an indicator of newly acquired STIs, in particular gonorrhoea and chlamydia, which according to the Gauteng Department of Health are the most prevalent STIs in South Africa.

Thousands of men and women in Gauteng contracted sexually transmitted infections. (Infograph by Spotlight based on information supplied by Gauteng Department of Health.)

Chandiwana said diagnosis of MUS in men and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) among women, are made by assessing symptoms of pain, discomfort and genital discharge and sores. Conventionally, it’s treated with broad range antibiotics.

She explained South Africa’s guidelines to treatment and management is to make clinical decisions based on a patient’s symptoms and signs. “While this standard approach has worked, we are calling for a move to targeted diagnosis and targeted treatment. It’s because you want to know which STI someone has and to treat them for that particular disease,” said Chandiwana.

Different STIs can also result in different complications. Syphilis for instance, she said, can result in women giving birth to children who are deaf or blind or raises the risks for infertility. (Spotlight previously reported on congenital syphilis in South Africa in more depth here.)

“We also have STIs that are present but not visible, so asymptomatic STIs, including HPV (human papillomavirus­), which is the leading cause of cervical cancer in black women in South Africa,” Chandiwana said.

“Of course it’s complicated in a public healthcare system where we might not have lab services everywhere, and where there may be lab testing there is a long turnaround for results,” she added.

What to do

It means a multi-pronged approach is still necessary. This she said, has to include a shift from blaming and policing people’s sexual behaviour. Her comments are in response to Gauteng MEC for health and wellness Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko’s remarks in the same Gauteng Department of Health press release in which the MEC drew a link between a higher number of women coming forward to be initiated on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) – an antiretroviral drug prescribed for HIV-negative people to stop HIV infection – and the higher recorded number of STIs. The MEC is quoted saying: “We believe that the high uptake of PrEP among women has led this group to having unprotected sex resulting in high incidence of MUS. The studies have reported that STI incidence is also high among young women receiving PrEP.”

Chandiwana dismissed the conclusion of a causal relationship. “PrEP is a very important tool because it’s something people can take to prevent HIV. But before we had PrEP it was not like people were using condoms – people were using nothing. So I disagree, the uptake of PrEP is not directly involved with the increase of STIs,” she said.

What’s needed instead, she said, is to ask why people are not using condoms more often and why South Africa is not creating STI friendly services that include differentiated care for key populations such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, or people who inject drugs. There should also be more peer navigators, services that are quick, efficient and confidential as well as investment and development of rapid testing kits, she added.

Preliminary findings from the Sixth South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence, and Behaviour survey released by the Human Sciences Research Council in November indicated that condom use had dropped substantially among young people from 2017 to 2022. It did prompt MEC Nkomo-Ralehoko to call for more uptake of PrEP.  “We would like to encourage more males to get initiated on PrEP to protect themselves against STI. Additionally, both men and women who are on PrEP should use condoms to protect themselves against STIs, HIV and unwanted pregnancies,” she was quoted in the press release.

Role of medical male circumcision

Meanwhile, the NGO Right to Care is promoting voluntary medical male circumcision as another strategy to combat the rise in STI cases. “Uncircumcised men are more susceptible to STIs than men who are circumcised, especially STIs that cause ulcers or wounds,” said Dr Nelson Igaba, senior technical specialist for voluntary medical male circumcision at the NGO.

He described the Gauteng statistics as “worrying” and said it should be read as a prompt for more men to opt for circumcision. The NGO will connect men to their nearest public facility to have the procedure done for free. (They can be contacted at 082 808 6152.)

Dr Tendesayi Kufa-Chakezha, a senior epidemiologist at the Centre for HIV and STIs at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), also homes in on the need for more awareness building.

“As a country we are not talking about STIs enough, among ourselves or with our children. More healthcare workers are needed and more training can be made available. We also need a massive campaign to educate communities on the causes of STI syndromes, symptoms, where to get treatment, types of treatments, complications and to go back to facilities if they don’t get better.”

Kufa-Chakezha said South Africa’s STI treatment guidelines do conform with existing WHO guidelines. She said the NICD regularly collects information and specimens from health facilities, which  allows them to determine the most common causes associated with the symptoms that are most commonly seen. The NICD uses these findings to inform the country’s STI management and treatment strategies that are based on diagnosis and treatment of the most prevalent STIs.

“If as a country we are not able to get more people with or without STI symptoms screened and treated, we will continue to have people acquiring STIs, developing symptoms associated with them, becoming ill and developing complications from them,” she added.