Nearly a quarter of syphilis cases in the United States were diagnosed in women in 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday, a sign that the country’s “alarming” outbreak of the diseaseis spreading more and more among heterosexual couples.
The number of reported cases of syphilis in women increased by 19.5% in 2022. A total of 14,652 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, the first two stages of the disease, were reported in women, approximately one quarter of the 59,016 cases nationally. In 2018, only 14% of syphilis cases were reported in women.
Men who have sex with men continue to account for a disproportionate share of cases, according to the CDC.
A worsening syphilis epidemic
Health officials have been warning for years of the country’s worsening syphilis epidemic. The CDC’s final numbers for 2022 represent the highest number of diagnoses nationwide since the 1950s.
While tens of thousands of syphilis cases and deaths were reported each year in the 1940s, the introduction of penicillin led to a sharp decline in syphilis rates over the past century.
Cases last peaked nationally in the 1990s, before a decline that lasted several years and which health officials said was likely due to changes in sexual behavior due to the epidemic of HIV.
“Controlling syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) requires strong public health systems and workforce, as well as prevention strategies tailored to the specific needs of affected communities. There are no shortcuts to controlling the syphilis,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, said in an emailed statement.
Syphilis rates have increased every year since 2011 and remain disproportionately high, particularly among Black and Native American populations.
Mermin said it will be necessary to improve diagnostic and treatment efforts, as well as increase efforts to combat other factors like drug addiction that fuel risky behaviors that allow the bacteria to spread, to stop the epidemic.
“We know that syphilis in the heterosexual population and drug use, particularly methamphetamine use, are cross-epidemics, and syphilis has been spreading among heterosexual men and women for decades,” he said. declared.
Symptoms of Syphilis
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria T. pallidum. Signs of syphilis usually first appear as a single, painless ulcer. Untreated syphilis can cause more serious complications if it spreads to other parts of the body, such as brain or nerve infections that doctors call neurosyphilis.
Rates of congenital syphilis – a potentially fatal form of syphilis, when the bacteria isduring pregnancy – have also continued to increase in recent years.
More than 102 cases have been reported for every 100,000 babies born in 2022 in the United States, according to the CDC. This amounts to a rate several times worse than that of other peer countries.
Rates of other STIs
The 2022 increase also now marks a divergence from others, or STI. Chlamydia cases were roughly stable in 2022 compared to the previous year. Gonorrhea rates have fallen, 8.7% compared to 2021.
Mermin said the agency is “cautiously optimistic” that gonorrhea is slowing and will closely monitor 2023 numbers to see if that trend continues to improve.
“The CDC is reviewing these results closely and will review the final 2023 data to better understand whether this signals a decline in infections and to better understand where, why, and among whom the decline occurred in hopes of being able to expand on what works.” he said.
Funding shortages and reductions
The CDC’s final tally for 2022 comes as health officials warn that the number of cases of sexually transmitted infections in 2023 could be worse, following funding cuts and shortages of a key treatment.
“The latest data from the CDC on STIs show that our country faces a rapidly deteriorating public health crisis that puts real lives at stake. STIs – particularly syphilis – will continue to spiral out of control until that the administration and Congress provide communities with the funding they need. the National Coalition of MST Directors said in a statement.
The group has previously expressed frustration over a months-long continuing shortage of Pfizer’s Bicillin LA, the only treatment recommended for pregnant mothers and their babies to combat congenital syphilis infections.
Several health departments reported that pregnant patients had difficulty accessing the drug during the shortage, the group said last year. The CDC has blamed the majority of recent cases of congenital syphilis in the country on gaps and delays in testing and treatment.
Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to temporary imports of a version of the drug from Europe to address the shortage.
Hundreds of federally funded public health workers tasked with combating sexually transmitted infections are also being laid off, the group warned last year, urging Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to mitigate cuts resulting from a deal reached with Congress last year.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement released Tuesday, the ministry announced it was mobilizing a new task force to respond to the resurgence of syphilis.
“Our nation’s syphilis crisis is unacceptable. The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to solving this urgent problem and using every means available to eliminate disparities in our health care system,” Becerra said in the statement .
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