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 reaching their highest level since the 1950s, official data shows.
An annual report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 207,300 cases of the STD – which can cause sores on the genitals and mouth – were diagnosed nationwide in 2022, the latest year available.
This was a 17 percent increase in a year and an 83 percent increase 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 for concern because it puts them at risk of stillbirth and birth defects.
The chart above shows the rate per 100,000 people for the total number of syphilis cases recorded in the US since the 1940s. This reveals that they are starting to type again
The two charts show how the rate of syphilis cases has shifted across the US since 2013
Syphilis is often known as ‘the great pretender’ as the disease has overlapping symptoms with several other STDs, which can lead health professionals to completely overlook symptoms. Here are five warning signs of the disease to look out for
Symptoms of syphilis include sores that may erupt over the body in more severe cases of infection. The patient above had syphilis and an HIV infection
Overall, data showed 2.5 million Americans contracted an STD in 2022 — the same levels as last year. But while other diseases such as chlamydia remained flat, syphilis cases grew.
Dr. Laura Bachmann, the acting director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said: ‘Within the STI epidemic, syphilis is one infection that stands alone.
‘This has emerged as a unique public health challenge.’
Xavier Becerra, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, called the figures ‘unacceptable’.
He said: ‘The Biden-Harris administration is committed to addressing this pressing issue and using all available means to eliminate inequities in our health care system.’
The department said it will establish a new task force to focus on reducing syphilis rates in the US.
Syphilis rates fell in the 1940s and 50s amid successful public health campaigns and the widespread use of condoms and penicillin.
By the late 1990s, the CDC launched the national plan to eliminate syphilis from the United States—saying that the goal was within their reach.
But within the past decade, rates have started to rise again. Experts have pointed to a host of reasons for the rise, including declines in condom use, fewer local sexual health clinics and widespread drug use.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is spread by contact with sores that usually occur 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 chafing or heat rash.
The disease can then enter a second stage, where the sore disappears and is replaced by a rash that can last for weeks.
Without treatment, patients risk the disease spreading to the brain and spinal cord which can cause complications including headaches, stroke and meningitis – or inflammation of the brain’s protective linings.
There is particular concern about the disease in pregnant women because the bacteria can infect the placenta and developing baby – causing complications including vision and hearing loss and low birth weight.
Treatment for the disease involves administering antibiotic injections to patients.
Data from the CDC showed that there were 3,755 babies born with congenital syphilis in the U.S. in 2022 — a 10-fold increase over a decade ago and a 31 percent rise in a year. Of these, 282 resulted in stillbirths or infant deaths.
The above shows that syphilis is not just limited to the LGBT population, and is becoming more common in other groups.
The above shows the number of cases of congenital syphilis recorded in the US, or syphilis infections in pregnant people. It carries a risk of birth complications
The above shows syphilis cases by age group, with the highest rates among men in their early 30s
South Dakota currently has the highest rate of common syphilis infections at 84 cases per 100,000 people.
That’s more than double the rates in the second-highest state, New Mexico.
Experts said the outbreak in South Dakota was linked to infections transmitted in the Native American community.
Data also showed that among those diagnosed with syphilis, 29 percent had only had 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 among women.
Within weeks of infection, syphilis can cause sores to appear in the mouth or around the genital area. It is contagious and can transmit 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 spread unknowingly in the cisgender heterosexual population because we really don’t test for it.
“We’re really not looking for that.”