- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

Syphilis rates rose again in 2007, largely reflecting outbreaks among men who have sex with men, the nation’s public health agency said yesterday.

The news dampens hopes of eliminating the ancient sexually transmitted disease (STD), which in 2000 looked close to eradication in the United States.

“STDs remain a major threat to the health of gay and bisexual men, in part because having an STD other than HIV can increase the risk of transmitting or acquiring HIV,” said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

“The resurgence of syphilis among MSM [men who have sex with men] represents a formidable challenge to our STD prevention efforts, but one that is surmountable,” Dr. Fenton said at the agency’s STD prevention conference in Chicago.

Screening and treatment should be a central part of medical care for gay and bisexual men, as well as finding innovative ways to help them avoid STD infections, including HIV, in the first place, he said.

Based on preliminary data, the 2007 syphilis rate was 3.7 cases per 100,000 population, or 11,181 cases. It was the seventh increase in a row and pushed rates 76 percent higher than in 2000, when the rate was 2.1 cases per 100,000.

The 2007 syphilis rate among the female population also increased, deepening concerns about a potential resurgence of the disease among women. But, as in recent years, the overall increase in the 2007 syphilis rate was largely attributed to men, especially men who have sex with men, the CDC said.

“While syphilis rates have increased recently for both men and women, the increases have been considerably larger for men,” the CDC said. “This differs from the pattern seen in the late 1990s, when rates among males and rates among females were roughly equivalent.”

About 60 percent of syphilis cases last year were among men who have sex with men, compared with an estimated 5 percent in 1999, the CDC said.

Among racial and ethnic groups, syphilis rates for black men and women were higher than the rates among whites.

Syphilis is arguably the world’s oldest known venereal disease. It is highly contagious in its early phases and deadly in its final stages, when it can cause blindness, deafness, strokes, sterility, dementia and death.

It is also often asymptomatic. CDC officials said that many Americans who are diagnosed with syphilis today are surprised by the news.

“People who are expecting to get sick before they think they have something like syphilis clearly need to get the message that when it’s in your community, you can have it and you may not know it unless you get tested,” said Dr. John M. Douglas Jr., director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention.

A telltale sign of early syphilis infection is a firm, round, small, painless sore called a chancre, which appears at the spot where syphilis entered the body. The chancre will heal in a few weeks without treatment. Secondary syphilis symptoms include a rash, fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue.

Syphilis is cured easily with penicillin in its early stage. Advanced syphilis can be cured as well, but treatment cannot repair the damage to internal organs.

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