According to the Center for Disease Control’s new report published today, STI rates increased for the fifth consecutive year. Yikes. But what’s even more troubling? Cases of syphilis, an STI that you probably haven’t thought about since middle school when you learned that Al Capone died from it, have also increased by 14 percent within the last year.
With nearly 35,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis documented in 2018, these numbers are alarming. Especially considering syphilis is fully treatable. But unfortunately, it gets worse: Congenital syphilis cases, which occur when a child is born to a mother who has syphilis, increased by 40 percent within the year, resulting in many newborn deaths.
While the number of syphilis infections might seem low compared to a common STI like chlamydia, which reportedly had 1.8 million cases documented in 2018, the rise of syphilis is something you may need to consider.
We talked with Marcus Plescia, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, who explained everything you need to know about syphilis re: what you should be concerned about, how to get tested, and what resources you should use.
What is syphilis?
“Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that is contracted through sexual contact. It’s a lot like gonorrhea, HIV, chlamydia, etc. It’s a bacterial infection, which is ultimately a germ that people pass through one another,” says Dr. Plescia.
Who is most at risk for syphilis?
“The infection used to be something that was most commonly seen transmitted between men who had sex with men, but there’s been an increase in heterosexual women who are contracting the infection as well,” says Dr. Plescia. “But obviously for people who practice safe sex, they’re going to be far less likely to contract if they use a barrier like a condom.”
How can you get tested for syphilis?
Through a blood sample at your doctor’s office or a public health department if you prefer to maintain your anonymity, says Dr. Plescia. If you ask to be tested for STIs, your doctor will most likely test you for syphilis in that screening, but if you’re concerned you’ve been exposed to a specific STI, “it doesn’t hurt to explicitly tell your doctor what you want to be tested for,” says Dr. Plescia.
What does syphilis look like? How would someone know they have it?
“We usually refer to it as a canker sore that can be found on someone’s genitals. You’ll definitely notice something there that shouldn’t be there,” says Dr. Plescia. “It typically looks very red with distinct edges.”
However, if you don’t get the syphilis treated as soon as you notice it, “it can then turn to secondary syphilis, which may make you experience a fever, flu-like symptoms, a sore, a rash, etc.”
How do you contract it?
“Just like any other sexually transmitted infection, you can transmit it through unprotected sex (whether vaginal or anal). If you’re using barrier protection, that’s the way you can best protect yourself from being exposed,” says Dr. Plescia.
Is it treatable?
Yup. Through antibiotics. But if it goes left untreated, primary syphilis can then turn to secondary syphilis, which will cause a rash, fever, sore throat, maybe even arthritis. Years beyond that, if still left untreated, it can turn into tertiary syphilis, which is at its worse and can cause neurological memory loss that unfortunately can’t be reversed,” says Dr. Plescia.
Why do you think there’s an increase in syphilis?
“I think it’s a little complicated. Whenever we see high rates of people living in poverty or in unstable conditions, they’re at higher risk to contract an STI. So we think it could be a social issue considering what this country is going through right now,” says Dr. Plescia.
“But there’s also an eroding infrastructure right now. Half of all local sexually transmitted disease programs have experienced budget cuts in the last few years, and a lot of clinics are closing, which makes it a lot more difficult for people to get treatment. It’s also hard to get public health workers into the high-risk communities to screen them as well.”
Any additional resources you could provide for those who have more questions?
I’d suggest searching for your state or public health department. You can also check out the CDC website, which is CDC.gov if you have more questions,” says Dr. Plescia.