Health & Lifestyle

America’s syphilis epidemic laid bare: Rates of STD rise to highest level since the 1950s… and one state has become the outbreak’s VERY unlikely epicenter

A major syphilis outbreak is gripping the US with cases now reaching their highest level since the 1950s, official data shows.

An annual report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed 207,300 cases of the STD — which can cause sores on the genitals and mouth — were diagnosed nationwide in 2022, the latest year available.

That marked a 17 percent rise in a year and an 83 percent surge compared to five years ago.

The data also showed a 30 percent rise in cases of congenital syphilis — when the mother passes the disease to her baby — which is a particular cause of concern because the disease raises the risk of stillbirth and birth defects in children.

The above graph shows the rate per 100,000 people for the total number of syphilis cases recorded in the US since the 1940s. It reveals they are starting to tick up again

The above graph shows the rate per 100,000 people for the total number of syphilis cases recorded in the US since the 1940s. It reveals they are starting to tick up again 

The two maps show how the rate of syphilis cases has shifted across the US since 2013

The two maps show how the rate of syphilis cases has shifted across the US since 2013

The above shows that syphilis is not confined to just the LGBT population, and is becoming more common in other groups

The above shows that syphilis is not confined to just the LGBT population, and is becoming more common in other groups

Overall, data showed 2.5million Americans caught an STD in 2022 — the same levels as last year. But while other diseases like Chlamydia have remained flat, syphilis cases have grown.

Dr Laura Bachmann, the acting director of the CDC’s division on STD Prevention, said: ‘Within the STI epidemic, syphilis is one infection that stands alone.

‘It has emerged as a unique public health challenge.’ 

The US Department of Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra has branded the figures as ‘unacceptable’.

He said: ‘The Biden-Harris administration is committed to addressing this urgent issue and using all available means to eliminate disparities in our health care system.’

The department has said it will establish a new taskforce to focus on reducing rates of syphilis in the US.

Syphilis rates plunged in the 1950s amid nationwide efforts to curb the disease and the emergence of the antibiotic penicillin — which made the infections much easier to treat.

By the late 1990s, the CDC had launched the National Plan to Eliminate Syphilis from the United States — saying the goal was within their grasp.

But within the last decade, rates have again started to take off amid a lack of funding for prevention efforts. 

Experts have pointed to a slew of reasons for the uptick, including falls in condom use, fewer sexual health clinics being available and rises in rates of substance abuse.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread via contact with sores which usually appear around the pubic area or mouth.

Symptoms appear within three to four weeks of an infection and are often not noticed or dismissed as mild abrasions or heat rash.

The disease can then enter a second stage, where the sore disappears and is replaced with a rash that can last for weeks.

Without treatment, patients run the risk of the disease spreading to the brain and the spinal cord which can cause complications including headaches, stroke and meningitis — or inflammation of the brain’s protective linings.

There is particular concern over the disease in pregnant women because the bacteria can infect the placenta and developing infant — causing complications including vision and hearing loss and low birthweight.

Treatment for the disease involves administering antibiotic injections to patients.

Data from the CDC showed that there were 3,755 babies with congenital syphilis born in the US in 2022 — a 10-fold increase on a decade ago and a 31 percent spike in a year. Of these, 282 resulted in stillbirths or infant deaths.

The above shows the number of cases of congential syphilis recorded in the US, or syphilis infections in pregnant people. These run a risk of birth complications

The above shows the number of cases of congential syphilis recorded in the US, or syphilis infections in pregnant people. These run a risk of birth complications

And the above map shows the rates of reported cases of congenital syphilis by state from 2013 and 2022

And the above map shows the rates of reported cases of congenital syphilis by state from 2013 and 2022

The above shows syphilis cases by age group, with rates highest among men in their early 30s

The above shows syphilis cases by age group, with rates highest among men in their early 30s

South Dakota currently has the highest rate of general syphilis infections at 84 cases per 100,000 people. 

That is more than double the rates in the second-highest state, New Mexico.

Experts said the outbreak in South Dakota is linked to infections being transmitted in the native American community.

Data also showed that among those being diagnosed with syphilis, 29 percent were only having sex with other men.

A further 22.6 percent of cases were diagnosed among men who have sex with women — and 24.8 percent of cases were diagnosed in women.

Within weeks of infection, syphilis can cause sores to appear in the mouth or around the genital area. These are infectious and can pass on the disease

Within weeks of infection, syphilis can cause sores to appear in the mouth or around the genital area. These are infectious and can pass on the disease

She added: ‘We cannot continue to use decades-old prevention strategies to address today’s STI epidemic.

‘People need testing and treatment to meet them where they are.’ 

Dr Philip Chan, a medical officer at Brown University, told NBC News: ‘I think it’s unknowingly being spread in the cisgender heterosexual population because we really aren’t testing for it. 

‘We really aren’t looking for it.’


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