Sinfectious infection exception growing in the US. – especially syphilis, an increase of 26% from 2020 to 2021, according to preliminary data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in September. Particularly worrisome was the 24% increase over that time period in congenital syphilis, which infects unborn babies in the womb and can cause birth defects or even kill babies.
Fortunately, syphilis is easily treatable and curable. However, people who are infected don’t necessarily know it — and if left undetected and treated, the disease can have serious consequences.
Here’s what you need to know about the rising rate of syphilis and how to protect yourself.
Why is syphilis on the rise?
Syphilis fell to historic lows in 2000 but has been on the rise almost every year in the US since then. Experts say that’s for a number of reasons, including a lack of investment in public health in the US and the stigma surrounding sex, said Dr. Edward Hook, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and director The director of the Jefferson County STD Control Program said. health. Public health clinics, where people usually get tested for STIs, are frequently underfunded in the US The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse, as public health clinics are understaffed. staff have redirected resources to deal with the outbreak. Given that syphilis has had tests and treatments for decades, the fact that it keeps coming back “is a sign that we’re doing something wrong,” says Hook.
Meanwhile, Hook said, America’s healthcare providers aren’t necessarily trained to deal with gender or sexuality competently, so they often miss out on small-scale opportunities. important control. “Most doctors don’t consider sexual history [of their patients], and an even smaller percentage have an erratic sexual history as people have become frequent patients,” says Hook. “They make the false assumption that married people have no other sexual partners – that their patients are not the ‘type of patients’ who can have other sexual partners.”
Other factors include the rise of online dating, which some experts say allows people to expand their sexual networks and is linked to more risky sexual behavior and an increase of illegal drugs in the US, especially methamphetamine. The use of these drugs tends to be associated with risky sexual behavior. Ina Park, associate professor of family community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of Strange bed friends: Adventures in Science, History, and Surprising Secrets about STDs. For example, “most people don’t use condoms for oral sex — and syphilis is one of those sexually transmitted diseases that can be easily transmitted through oral sex.” ,” said Park.
Who should get tested for syphilis — and how often?
On September 27, the US Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of medical professionals, reaffirmed its guidelines for healthcare providers to screen all patients at higher risk of infection.
The task force did not make recommendations on how often people should be tested, noting that the ideal screening interval for people at increased risk is “not well established.” It says two of the most at-risk groups – men who have sex with men, as well as those with HIV – “may benefit” from being screened once a year or even regularly. more often. CDC data shows men who have sex with men 106 times are more likely to get syphilis than men who have sex with men. CDC suggestions that men who have sex with men should get tested for syphilis as often as every three to six months if they have multiple or anonymous sex partners. Other groups at high risk for syphilis include black Americans, who are almost five times more likely infected than white Americans. Socioeconomic factors – including less access to good health care – can also make people more vulnerable.
Syphilis can be detected by simple test at a clinic (usually free or inexpensive), and can be cured with antibiotics. According to the CDC, people can reduce their risk of getting syphilis by using safe sex methods including using condoms, getting tested, and being monogamous with someone who gets the results. negative test.
Park said sexually active people should be screened for syphilis, along with other sexually transmitted diseases, about once a year. Everyone should also be tested for syphilis early pregnancy. Pregnant people at higher risk of syphilis — including those who have had multiple sex partners, tested positive for another STI during pregnancy, or drug users — should be retested during the third trimester and at birth.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
Syphilis is notoriously easy to miss and easily confused with other conditions. In the early stages of infection, people may have sores on their genitals or mouth, but these bumps may be internal and therefore not easily seen. They are not always painful and go away on their own, so many people ignore or ignore them. However, a few weeks or months later, people with syphilis often develop multiple sores or rashes on their genitals, mouth, or soles of the feet. This can resemble symptoms of other conditions, like psoriasis, herpes, or eczema. During these two stages, syphilis is highly contagious and can be spread through kissing and vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
The rashes and bumps usually go away, but the infection remains in a person’s body. If left untreated, syphilis can cause harm for years or even decades later, damaging the nervous system, brain and heart, says Park. However, serious symptoms may occur At any stage if the infection spreads to the brain, eyes or ears, including vision or hearing damage or even dementia. However, in some cases, people may not realize they have syphilis until the disease has taken its toll, Park said.
Even if it doesn’t cause symptoms for years or even decades, “it multiplies and causes damage,” she says.
Getting tested and treated for syphilis is especially important for pregnant people. Congenital syphilis increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, or infant death soon after birth. Babies who survive may also develop symptoms such as deformed bones, meningitis, and brain problems. Newborns don’t always have symptoms at birth, but can develop them weeks or even years later — so it’s important to stay up-to-date on testing.
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