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Syphilis infections up; progress made on other STDs

December 1, 2011

A decade ago, the sexually transmitted disease syphilis was on the verge of elimination.  Today, a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a 39 percent increase in the disease from 2006 to 2009, with most new cases appearing in young black men.

“The majority of the increase is amongst men who have sex with men,” said Charlotte Kent, acting director of the CDC’s division of STD prevention.

The CDC called the increase a concerning new trend.

“We really need to promote screening and treatment amongst these young men,” Kent said. “Clearly discrimination and homophobia can act as barriers to health care seeking and availability, and that does add to some of the challenges of developing effective intervention.”

Poor access to health care because of poverty is also contributing to the trend.  The CDC recommends "that all sexually active men who have sex with men be tested every year for syphilis (as well as gonorrhea, and chlamydia, and HIV)."  The agency says it is working to implement its syphilis elimination plan, which includes partnering with gay and bisexual health organizations.

Monday’s report, which also reviewed new cases of the sexually transmitted diseases chlamydia and gonorrhea, revealed some “signs of progress.”

Syphilis in women declined 7 percent last year. The rate of the disease had been on the upswing since 2004.

Fewer Americans contracted gonorrhea in 2009. The disease is now at the lowest level on record, according to the CDC.

Although there was still a high burden of chlamydia in the country, Kent said the disease was “stable.” Cases of chlamydia increased three percent in 2009.  The CDC said the increase was not evidence of more disease, but rather a reflection of more people being screened for chlamydia.

Left untreated, syphilis can damage the brain, heart and other organs.  "Untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death in up to 40 percent of cases," according to the CDC.

Untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia can lead to infertility.  "Each year STDs cause an estimated 24,000 women in the U.S. to become infertile," Kent said. "Future fertility is one of the strongest motivators to get screened and seek treatment."



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