April was STD Awareness month and the specific focus was on syphilis. It’s no wonder, being that researchers have been seeing steadily increasing rates of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) in recent years. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Call to Action
—sharing with specific at-risk populations and healthcare providers alike what they can do to “stem the tide.”
The rates of primary and secondary syphilis have increased by 19% from 2014 to 2015. The CDC notes that preliminary data is suggesting that there was a “similar rate of increase in the first 6 months of 2016.” Although both men and women are experiencing increased rates of infection, a staggering 90% of all primary and secondary syphilis cases are men. Furthermore, the CDC reports that men who have sex with men (MSM) account for the majority (82%) of male cases.
In their call to action, the CDC shared that “increases in congenital syphilis (CS) have paralleled the national increase in primary and secondary syphilis among women of reproductive age.” In fact, from 2012 to 2015, rates of congenital syphilis increased each year.
Although syphilis can result in several severe—and sometimes deadly—complications, it is arguably easy to prevent and, unlike other diseases such as HIV, with the right treatment, it can be cured. The CDC reports that penicillin, first used to fight syphilis in 1943, remains the best drug available to fight the infection.
New Tools for Syphilis Prevention and Control Are Needed
The good news is the penicillin has remained effective in treating syphilis. The bad news? According to the CDC, “It is the only known antibiotic to treat syphilis during pregnancy. So, for pregnant women with a severe allergy to penicillin, or when there is a drug shortage, there are no alternative treatment regimens to turn to. The rest of our treatment and prevention tools are outdated.”
The CDC also shared that the tests currently available are unable to confirm syphilis “on the spot,” and that, “they require at least two sequential antibody tests in blood, rather than directly detecting the presence of syphilis-causing bacteria.” In addition, the results can be hard to interpret, which can result in a delay in needed treatment. Furthermore, these tests are not able to diagnose the infection in its early stages, underscoring the need for “modernized test development.”