Syphilis Makes a Stunning Comeback

The need for testing and treatment is clear to concerned doctors

A serious sexually transmitted diseases is making a worrisome comeback, and it is one you may not have heard about in a while: syphilis.

This serious infection may even have an old-fashioned ring to it. Historical figures such as Hitler, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Napoleon, and even Shakespeare are all thought to have suffered from syphilis.

Syphilis is diagnosed by either a simple blood test, or in some cases by testing fluid from a syphilis sore. It is curable with the right treatment of antibiotics, but damage done prior to treatment cannot be undone, so being tested early is extremely important.

It’s of great concern that cases of syphilis are on the rise in the U.S., and this is true in Minnesota in particular. The Minnesota Department of Health says the rates of syphilis have increased in the past year alone by 63 percent, the rise noted mainly in the female population.

“Eighty-seven percent of these new cases are in the Twin Cities, which, of course are more densely populated,” Kathy Anderson, director of nursing for Clay County Public Health in Minnesota, told LifeZette. “People in certain high risk categories — risky sexual behaviors being one — need to receive testing and treatment for syphilis, as well as all other STDs.”

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In late 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were on the rise nationally for the first time since 2006, with increasing rates among men responsible for the lion’s share of the increases.

Rates of primary and secondary syphilis (or “P&S,” as the medical community calls them) have been increasing since 2000, especially in the case of men who have sex with other men (termed MSM by the CDC). That’s according to the CDC’s 2014 Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance report.

The MSM population accounted for 83 percent of the STD carriers when the sex of the partner is known, according to the CDC report.

Researchers also noted that more than half of men who have sex with men who were diagnosed with syphilis in 2014 were also HIV-positive, creating concern that genital sores associated with syphilis could make it easier to transmit HIV.

There is also evidence that gay and bisexual men are seeing similar increases in gonorrhea and chlamydia, Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, told HealthDay News.

The CDC noted in its Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014 report that rates of both P&S syphilis and gonorrhea increased significantly by 15.1 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively, from 2013 to 2014.

In Minnesota, the 63 percent increase in syphilis cases is the largest jump in 20 years. The new cases are across all races and are being seen in women, primarily in women of childbearing years. This is of grave concern, given the life-threatening effects to the unborn children of these women.

A baby who contracts syphilis in utero may have a lower birth weight and will be more likely to be born prematurely or stillborn. A woman should be tested while pregnant and immediately after giving birth, says the CDC.

“We are hoping that doctors are routinely testing pregnant women, but we’re also hoping that the women themselves will be their own advocates and step up and ask for testing,” said Anderson. “We want all those unborn babies to come into the world healthy.”

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All STDs should be taken seriously, including those experienced by young people.

“The consequences of STDs are especially severe for young people,” Bolan said in a 2015 press release concerning multiple STDs. “Because chlamydia and gonorrhea often have no symptoms, many infections go undiagnosed, and this can lead to lifelong repercussions for a woman’s reproductive health, including pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.”

Syphilis testing is important because there are so many possible symptoms — from a painless small sore that can be confused with an ingrown hair, to a non-itchy rash that shows up on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. An individual with syphilis can have all of these symptoms, or none of them.

The primary stage of syphilis may bring the emergence of a firm, round and painless sore. This sore will last from three to six weeks, and will disappear regardless of whether treatment is received. It is very important to get treatment even if the sore disappears.

The secondary stage of syphilis may bring the rash and sores in the mouth and in the genital area. The skin rash can show up while the primary sore is healing and can appear as rough, red or reddish-brown spots on the hands or feet. It may be so faint (and non-itchy) that an individual may not notice it.

Other symptoms may include fever, swollen glands, headache, weight loss, muscle aches and other symptoms that might suggest the flu. These symptoms will also go away whether treatment is received or not.

Late-stage syphilis is very serious, and includes muscle movement trouble, paralysis, numbness, blindness and dementia. In the late stages, internal organs may be damaged, causing death.

Most people with untreated syphilis will not develop this more serious late-stage syphilis. But if it does occur, it is extremely serious, happening anywhere from 10-30 years after the infection began as primary syphilis.

The best strategy for steering clear of all STDs is abstinence from all forms of sex. Since syphilis sores may be hidden, it may not always be evident that a partner is suffering from the disease. One is always at risk unless he or she has certain knowledge that a partner has been tested and treated.

“Refrain from casual sexual contact, and always use a condom,” Anderson said. “And if you are involved in risky sexual contact, get tested often.”

Regular testing is strongly advised for all sexually active people. Completely cured syphilis can come back again with new exposure from another infected individual.

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