Once on the brink of elimination, syphilis cases reached a 24-year high in the United States in 2017. More than 30,000 cases of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) were reported nationally that year—a nearly 11% jump since 2016. In Lake County alone, there were 15 cases of syphilis in 2017, up from 10 in 2016. It is projected that in 2018 and 2019, we will see additional increases in rates of syphilis infection within Lake County. Clearly, syphilis is a renewed health threat for many.
“We know that fighting syphilis is challenging – and that decades of progress have come with a price,” said Gail Bolan, M.D., director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of STD Prevention. “Fewer healthcare providers are familiar with it, and too many Americans believe it’s a disease of the past. Stigma also remains within communities and the healthcare system.”
While all STDs are serious and need to be treated, syphilis is especially dangerous. Without treatment, it can cause severe health problems affecting the brain, eyes, heart, and other organs. Having syphilis also makes it easier to get HIV.
Syphilis Gains Ground in New Communities, Tightens Grip on Others
During 2016-2017, national syphilis rates spiked among men, women, newborns; a majority of age groups; all races and ethnicities; and in almost every region.
Its grasp is stronger and impact deeper for some groups in the US—despite its pervasive return in all populations across the country. Nationally, the number and rate of babies born with syphilis continues to surge. Men, and especially gay and bisexual men, remain hardest-hit—with data suggesting about half of gay and bisexual men with syphilis are also living with HIV.
“Syphilis is a renewed threat, especially for pregnant women, in whom this STI can have devastating consequences for the baby, including stillbirth,” states Erin Gustafson, M.D., MPH. “It is crucial for all people to have open conversations with partners about STDs, get tested regularly particularly if they have multiple partners, and use condoms every time they have sex,” Dr. Gustafson adds.
While syphilis may affect some groups more than others, its increase across all demographics nationally is a concerning shift that needs attention. It means this STD has the ability to affect many communities at anytime and anywhere. It means people from all walks of life—including those who think they have slim-to-zero chances of becoming infected—may be at risk. And bottom line, it means practicing prevention is a must for everyone.
Together, We Can Disrupt Syphilis
The good news is that there are a number of ways to prevent syphilis and other STDs. The most reliable way is to not have sex (vaginal, oral, or anal), but there are many other tried-and-true options: talking openly with partners and healthcare providers about STDs, testing, and sexual health; using condoms the right way from start to finish; and reducing your number of sexual partners. Those who test positive for syphilis should get treated right away – and be sure their partner is also treated to lower the risk of getting infected again.
The CDC also has information on how healthcare providers can reduce congenital syphilis and syphilis among gay and bisexual men.
This and other helpful information is available through Syphilis Strikes Back, a campaign devoted exclusively to promoting the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of syphilis. It seeks to raise awareness, help healthcare providers protect their patients, and empower individuals to take charge of their health.