Is the United States losing its fight against syphilis? In 2000, it was close to beating one of the deadliest sexually transmitted diseases at only four cases out of every 100,000 people. Cases have been increasing since then, jumping 15 percent from 2013 to 2014 to nearly 20,000 cases.
To win the battle, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) announced Tuesday that screening detection among the high-risk should be changed from once annually to every three months.
The new recommendations focus on those who are most prone, namely HIV-positive males, men having sex with men, and males from 20 to 29 years old. The emphasis is on safe sex practices, particularly condom use.
The new statement cited data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which noted that the majority of cases — over 61 percent — of syphilis occurred among men who have sex with men (MSM), with about half of all in this group co-infected with HIV.
A higher prevalence of infection was also linked to certain racial groups — such as blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — and to those in southern and western U.S. and metropolitan areas, versus limited geographic locations.
“[I]n 2016, hopes for eradication have long since faded, as have many of the gains realized by the effort,” wrote Drs. Meredith Clement and Charles Hicks in an accompanying editorial, as quoted by CNN. They were pertaining to the CDC’s national plan back in 1999 to eliminate syphilis in the country.
The CDC’s elimination efforts, too, officially ended December 2013.
Clement and Hicks pinpointed three possible factors: a drop in public health funding, riskier sexual behaviors among MSM, and greater focus on preventing HIV, which took attention away from other sexually transmitted infections.
Previously known as the “great pox,” syphilis begins with a single ulcer at the site of infection near the genital area. The genital sores spread as the condition progresses, with lymph nodes becoming painful and ulcers starting to show on other body parts.
If left untreated, it could become a late-stage condition in about 15 percent of cases, usually accompanied by heart disease as well as skin and bone lesions.
It could also raise the risk for acquiring or transmitting HIV with exposure.
“Among persons living with HIV, syphilis infection is associated with a subsequent increase in HIV viral load and decrease in CD4 cell counts,” noted the statement.
There is still hope, however, to win the war against syphilis, with health care providers advised to better, more efficiently take patients’ sexual history and apply recommended screening techniques.