The United States has not seen high syphilis numbers since 1950. Rates of other STDs are low or stable
NEW YORK (AP) — The syphilis epidemic is not abating in the United States, with the rate of infectious cases rising 9% in 2022, according to a new federal government report on sexually transmitted diseases in adults.
But there’s some unexpected good news: The rate of new gonorrhea cases has fallen for the first time in a decade.
It is not clear why infectious cases occur Syphilis Officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the infection rate of gonorrhea rose by 9% while gonorrhea fell by 9%, adding that it was too early to know whether a new downward trend was emerging for the latter.
It focuses more on syphilis, which is less common than gonorrhea or chlamydia but considered more serious. While it still disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men, it is expanding among heterosexual men and women. It increasingly affects newborns as wellCDC officials said.
Total cases exceeded 207,000 in 2022, an increase of 17% and the highest number in the United States since 1950, according to data released Tuesday. The census includes not only the most contagious stages of the disease, but also latent cases and cases in which pregnant women transmit syphilis to their babies.
Syphilis is a bacterial disease that can appear as painless sores on the genitals, but can eventually lead to paralysis, hearing loss, dementia and even death if left untreated.
New cases of syphilis in the United States declined starting in the 1940s when antibiotics became widely available and fell to their lowest levels by 1998.
About 59,000 of the 2022 cases involved more contagious forms of syphilis. Of these, about a quarter were women and nearly a quarter were heterosexual men.
“I think it’s inadvertently spreading among the heterosexual population because we don’t really test for it,” said Dr. Philip Chan, who teaches at Brown University and is chief medical officer at Open Door Health, a health center for gay, lesbian and transgender patients in Providence, Rhode Island. “We’re really not looking for it” among this population.
The report also shows that infection rates of the most common types of syphilis are higher not only across the country but also among different racial and ethnic groups, with Alaska Natives and American Indians having the highest rate. South Dakota outpaces any other state for the highest rate of contagious syphilis at 84 cases per 100,000 people — more than double the state with the second-highest rate, New Mexico.
The increase in South Dakota was driven by an outbreak in the Native American community, said Dr. Megan O’Connell, chief public health officer at the Great Plains Tribal Chiefs’ Health Council based in Rapid City, South Dakota. Nearly all of the cases were among heterosexual people, and O’Connell said testing and treatment for STDs was already limited in isolated tribal communities and has only gotten worse during the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year formed a syphilis task force focused on stopping the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, with a focus on places with the highest rates of syphilis — South Dakota, 12 other states and the District of Columbia.
The report also looked at more common sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Chlamydia cases were relatively steady from 2021 to 2022, remaining at a rate of about 495 per 100,000, although there were notable declines in men and especially women in their early 20s. For gonorrhea, the most pronounced decline was seen in women in their early 20s as well.
Experts say they’re not sure why gonorrhea rates are so low. It’s happened in about 40 states, so anything that explains this decline seems to have happened in most parts of the country. Sexually transmitted disease testing has been disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and officials believe that’s why the chlamydia infection rate dropped in 2020.
Testing and diagnostics will likely still be available in 2022, said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.
“We are encouraged by the magnitude of the decline,” Mermin said, although the gonorrhea rate remains higher now than it was before the pandemic. “We need to examine what happened and whether it will continue to happen.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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