Doctors begin rationing PENICILLIN to curb deadly syphilis epidemic – as rates of STD hit 70-year high

Some doctors have been forced to ration penicillin amid an alarming syphilis epidemic sweeping the US.

Cases of the sexually transmitted disease have risen more than 2,000 percent from 6,862 in 2002 to 203,500 in 2022, and rates nationwide are at a 70-year high.

The situation was exacerbated last spring by a shortage of a penicillin shot that is the first line of treatment for the STD.

The shortage, which continues, has become so severe that public health agencies have advised that providers ration the drug and store it for pregnant patients because it is the only syphilis treatment they can safely get.

This condition can be fatal or lead to malformations in babies born to infected mothers.

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

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

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 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

But the rationing comes amid a widening drug shortage in America, as large numbers of children have been hospitalized with colds and flu after lockdowns made them more susceptible due to weakened immune systems.

Penicillin is used to treat infections caused by bacteria, such as meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

In 2021, there were 46.4 million penicillin prescriptions in the US – the equivalent of 127,123 per day.

Rationing it could leave thousands of Americans without treatment for their throat infections, meningitis and other bacterial infections.

Two antibiotics are used to treat syphilis, the injectable penicillin and an oral drug called doxycycline.

The World Health Organization strongly recommends that pregnant women not take doxycycline because it can lead to bone and tooth deformities in babies.

Mark Turrentine, an OB-GYN from Houston, tells WebMD KFF Health News that he started seeing advice about the injectable penicillin shortage in April, which coincided with when the antibiotic amoxicillin was hard to come by.

In 2022, a rise in respiratory illnesses forced drugstore chains to temporarily limit purchases of fever-reducing medicines for children, contributing to a shortage of amoxicillin – a chemically modified penicillin antibiotic in tablet form.

Casual hookups and the ‘explosion’ in popularity of dating apps such as Hinge and Bumble have been partly blamed for the syphilis epidemic.

Two antibiotics are used to treat syphilis, the injectable penicillin and an oral drug called doxycycline

Two antibiotics are used to treat syphilis, the injectable penicillin and an oral drug called doxycycline

Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother spreads the disease to her unborn child, which can lead to birth defects, miscarriages and stillbirths

Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother spreads the disease to her unborn child, which can lead to birth defects, miscarriages and stillbirths

Some experts also pointed to a decline in condom use among American men — nearly 30 percent since 2011, according to some studies.

The CDC today urged doctors to be vigilant and asking pregnant women about syphilis in an effort to curb the crisis.

The agency has provided recommendations for syphilis testing, including serologic tests, which check for the presence of specific antibodies in the blood.

Pfizer, the maker of Bicillin, a long-acting injectable form of the antibiotic penicillin, cited “significant increase in demand” due to “an increase in syphilis infection rates” as an explanation for the shortage in a June 2023 letter mentioned to customers.

Erin Fox, associate chief of pharmacy for the University of Utah Health System, told KFF that although penicillin is not a new drug, it is complex to make because so many people are allergic to it.

She said: ‘That means you can’t make other drugs on that manufacturing line.

‘It’s not necessarily efficient – or necessarily profitable.’

Only pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer have the resources to oversee a specialized, separate facility.

In a statement, Pfizer said demand for penicillin injections had increased by about 70 percent.

But for now, Dr. Stephen Miller, a family physician in Chattanooga, Tenn., said his clinic has been forced to come up with a strategy.

Each penicillin shot can cost hundreds of dollars. It must also be stored in the cold, and expires after 48 months.

The National Coalition of STD Directors said the epidemic of STDs is “out of control,” and Tennessee has been hit particularly hard, with infection rates for the first two stages of syphilis growing 86 percent between 2017 and 2021.

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.

Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother spreads the disease to her unborn child, which can lead to birth defects, miscarriages and stillbirths.

Nationwide, there were 3,755 cases of congenital syphilis in 2022—a 10-fold increase from a decade earlier.

From 2018 to 2022, cases in infants grew by 183 percent. A November CDC report blamed the increase on a lack of “adequate treatment during pregnancy.”

Doctors use penicillin as a substitute, he said, which may have partly caused the shortage.

Meanwhile, a report last month warned that one in five Americans were affected by crippling drug shortages.

Manufacturing issues, supply chain hiccups and natural disasters have all prevented patients from accessing the medical treatment they need – including life-saving drugs for cancer, epilepsy and type 2 diabetes.

The ripple effects of the myriad supply chain problems that plagued 2022 may still be to blame for today’s medical shortages, the report, by LendingTree insurance subsidiary ValuePenguin.com, suggested.

The pandemic was also likely a culprit, causing historic declines in the manufacturing industry. Covid has also increased demand for many types of medication and equipment, such as Paxlovid and N95 masks.