New statistics from Sweden’s Public Health Agency (Folkhälsomyndigheten) show that by November 2016 1,625 gonorrhea cases had been reported in the country last year, compared to 1,535 during the same time period the year before.
That’s despite safe sex campaigns, and Swedish doctors previously highlighting that the number of gonorrhea infections had more than doubled in the decade between 1995 and 2015.
“There are several factors which have contributed to the growth. One of them is that more cases are detected now because access to tests has increased since ordering them online was made possible,” Folkhälsomyndigheten’s Elin Jacobsson told The Local.
“Gonorrhea has lived in the shadow of chlamydia somewhat, which is the most common STD in Sweden, but since a few years back both chlamydia and gonorrhea can be detected by the same test.”
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The number of people taking the combined test for chlamydia and gonorrhea in Sweden increased by 20 percent in 2015, leading to 390,000 testing themselves that year, up from 330,000 in 2014. Test numbers for 2016 are not yet available.
Folkhälsomyndigheten believes that awareness about the disease may still be too low, and also sees decreasing condom use in Sweden as a concern.
“The number of cases of gonorrhea reported was generally low for a long time, which means that awareness about the infection could be low. It’s very important that people who have unprotected sex are offered tests and discussions about condom use,” Jacobsson explained.
“Condom usage is too low in Sweden: it has dropped since the 80s and 90s when the fear of HIV was high. Chlamydia is not perceived as similarly serious, and as a result of that the incentive to use condoms isn’t as high. We also know that the number of sexual partners during a lifetime has increased and people don’t always make a rational risk assessment,” she added.
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The most common way for gonorrhea to spread is through sex without a condom, though it can also spread through oral sex. The average age bracket of those infected in 2016 was 28-29, the majority of whom were men.
Both gonorrhea and chlamydia can lead to reduced fertility if not treated. And a real concern is that the current antibiotic treatments could stop working, leading to strains of gonorrhea becoming incurable.
“The increase is worrying because it could become incurable as multiresistant bacteria grows. For one kind of gonorrhea in particular there is currently only one kind of antibiotic which can cure it,” Jacobsson warned.
“People are actively looking for new antibiotics, but we could end up in a situation where the cure which exists stops working.”
In Sweden, gonorrhea and chlamydia are subject to the country’s law for communicable disease control (smittskyddslagen), which means anyone who suspects being infected is required to get a test.
Symptoms include a burning sensation when urinating and bloody or red and swollen eyes.