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Sex, Drugs, and Death: Why Two Recent Government Statistics Should Sober Us Up.

August 29, 2018, 5:03 PM UTC

Americans contracted a record number of sexually transmitted diseases in 2017, beating the 2016 tally—which was then an all-time high—by more than 200,000 cases, according to preliminary data revealed yesterday by the CDC. An estimated 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were diagnosed in the U.S. last year, capping a multiyear period of “steep and sustained increases in STDs,” said the U.S. health agency. Gonorrhea cases alone jumped a shocking 67 percent from the number in 2013, according to the analysis presented at the CDC’s 2018 STD Prevention Conference in Washington.

The news follows a report earlier this month that an estimated 72,000 Americans had died from drug overdoses in 2017, according to a provisional count by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics—a figure that would mark not only a dismal milestone, but also a nearly 7% increase from the year before.

To put it bluntly, as Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, did in a CDC press release: “We are sliding backward.”

This double-barreled data shot from our friends in the U.S. government is yet one more reminder of how critical social determinants are in human health. Yes, “social determinants” is one of those academic terms that makes the eyes of all but academics gloss over. But such factors—drug and alcohol use, sexual and reproductive health, smoking status, nutrition and weight, oral health, our homes and environment, violence, wealth, social exclusion, zip code—have more of a collective impact on our wellbeing, population-wide, than every pharmaceutical drug and medical device put together. It’s not even close.

And yet we all but ignore these critical health components when we talk about, plan for, and pay for health.

Luckily, I think that conversation is just beginning to change—as Fortune’s conversation with Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson two weeks ago reflects. (See Sy’s wonderful write-up here.) Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, likewise, emphasized the importance of social determinants in his discussion with me at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Health conference.

But for us to have a real and lasting hope of a healthier America, we have to rethink our entire health system to align with such improvements in social health indicators. The CDC just gave us two scary reminders of the cost of business as usual.

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