• By Dana Sparks

‘Stem the tide’ of rising syphilis rates in United States

May 8, 2017

a couple standing on the edge of a lake looking at the landscape

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a “call to action” to hopefully slow the spread of syphilis. Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact. The disease starts as a painless sore — typically on your genitals, rectum or mouth. Syphilis spreads from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact with these sores.

After the initial infection, the syphilis bacteria can lie dormant in your body for decades before becoming active again. Early syphilis can be cured, sometimes with a single injection of penicillin. Without treatment, syphilis can severely damage your heart, brain or other organs, and can be life-threatening, or be passed from mother to an unborn child.

The CDC’s Division of STD Prevention is asking public health departments to improve surveillance and screening:

  • Public health departments need to improve surveillance; partner with healthcare providers and patient advocacy groups; conduct partner services; increase screening; and ensure collaboration between State and local STD, HIV and maternal and child public health programs.

  • Healthcare Providers need to take complete sexual histories; follow CDC testing recommendations; treat diagnosed patients immediately per CDC guidelines; and work with the health department to report all cases of syphilis by stage, including cases of congenital syphilis.

  • Decision-makers and community leaders need to talk to STD program professionals in their jurisdiction and address any policy barriers to affected populations seeking or obtaining recommended screening and treatment.

Causes

The cause of syphilis is a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. The most common route of transmission is through contact with an infected person's sore during sexual activity. The bacteria enter your body through minor cuts or abrasions in your skin or mucous membranes. Syphilis is contagious during its primary and secondary stages, and sometimes in the early latent period.

Less commonly, syphilis may spread through direct unprotected close contact with an active lesion (such as during kissing) or through an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth (congenital syphilis).

Syphilis can't be spread by using the same toilet, bathtub, clothing or eating utensils, or from doorknobs, swimming pools or hot tubs.

Once cured, syphilis doesn't recur on its own. However, you can become reinfected if you have contact with someone's syphilis sore.

Symptoms

Syphilis develops in stages, and symptoms vary with each stage. But the stages may overlap, and symptoms don't always occur in the same order. You may be infected with syphilis and not notice any symptoms for years.

The first sign of syphilis is a small sore, called a chancre (SHANG-kur). The sore appears at the spot where the bacteria entered your body. While most people infected with syphilis develop only one chancre, some people develop several of them. The chancre usually develops about three weeks after exposure. Many people who have syphilis don't notice the chancre because it's usually painless, and it may be hidden within the vagina or rectum. The chancre will heal on its own within three to six weeks.

Read more about symptoms on mayoclinic.org.

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