A sexually transmitted disease we thought was dying out is back with a vengeance
Syphilis has been out of fashion for a while now.
In the early 1900s, a tenth of London and a full fifth of the US service corps were infected with the sexually transmitted disease. In 1939, the disease killed 20,000 people in the US. By the middle of World War II, over half a million Americans were infected.But then it stopped. Syphilis didn't disappear entirely, but thanks to antibiotics and public health campaigns, it seemed like the disease was on its way out. New cases fell by 95% between 1947 and 1957.
The CDC even had a plan for near-complete eradication, which, if successful, would have left 90% of US counties syphilis-free.
But lately doctors and clinics have been reporting a disturbing trend. Syphilis is back in vogue.
A quick refresher: Syphilis, also known as "the pox," is an infection that can be transmitted through any sexual contact (oral, vaginal, or anal) or from a mother to her unborn child. The first symptoms are usually one or more sores, followed by a rash - but the symptoms are so diverse that the disease has been called "the great imitator." It can be cured with antibiotics, but if allowed to progress, the infection can cause muscle deterioration, blindness, and dementia.
In June, The Atlantic reported that cases of syphilis have been skyrocketing, from just 6,000 cases nationwide in 2000, to 20,000 in 2014. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, there was a 15% uptick in known cases.Depending on where you live, those numbers may be much, much worse. In March, Nevada officials announced that an outbreak in 2015 had netted Las Vegas an additional 700 cases. In Indiana, syphilis cases in the state jumped 70%, from just under 300 to 505 in one year. Last year, physicians on the West Coast started reporting a cluster of ocular syphilis cases - that's syphilis in your eye, which not only sounds awful but can cause permanent blindness.
Making matters worse, penicillin - that wonder drug that let us put syphilis on the ropes in the first place - is running low in some counties. Clinics in areas with shortages are being asked to reserve the antibiotic for pregnant women, because of the terrible effects the disease has on babies with infected mothers.
As Olga Khazan and Russell Berman point out in The Atlantic, the return of syphilis coincides with huge cuts in federal funding for STD prevention. After all, syphilis is hardly the only sexually transmitted infection on the rise: Chlamydia and gonorrhea are also seeing increased rates of infection, though at a slower pace than syphilis.
There is some good news: the Department of Health and Human Services will be getting an additional $5 million for programs treating and preventing STIs over the next fiscal year.