Syphilis: From Near Zero to a Big Threat

Just a few years ago, at the beginning of the new century, syphilis was close to being wiped out in the United States. But today, according to the latest annual report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the ancient sexually transmitted disease is looming as a serious new threat to the health especially of gay and bisexual men. The open sores, rashes and lesions that characterize two stages of the syphilis life cycle are of particular concern because they promote the transmission of HIV, the AIDS virus that's especially prevalent in the alternative-sexuality population.

Syphilis has now risen in frequency among women in every year since 2004, as has congenital syphilis (babies born with the sickness) since 2006. The increase has been so alarming that the CDC now recommends syphilis screening for all women in early pregnancy. Babies born with the infection run a big risk of stillbirth, infant death or severe complications, if they survive.

The CDC reports that chlamydia and gonorrhea are the most common infectious diseases in the United States, with more than 1.1 million cases of chlamydia reported in 2007 and 355,000 cases of gonorrhea. These numbers represent an increase of 7.5 percent over 2006 for chlamydia and a decrease of 0.7 percent for gonorrhea. Overall syphilis cases rose 10.7 percent from 2006 to 2007 - from 36,900 cases in 2006 to 40,900 in 2007 - mostly due to male-on-male sexual behavior.

The latter accounted for an estimated 4 percent of syphilis cases in 2000, rising to 62 percent in 2004. In 2007, 65 percent of new syphilis cases in 44 states and Washington, D.C., were among males with male sexual partners. These three sexually transmitted diseases, if untreated, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease - which results in 50,000 women becoming infertile each year. And the scarring from the infections can cause ectopic pregnancy (a perilous pregnancy in which the fetus implants not in the uterus but in the Fallopian tubes or cervix), chronic pelvic pain and other dangerous health problems.


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