Syphilis: A Stubborn Disease of Despair

Syphilis has shot up sharply in recent years as public health resources flowed elsewhere, dashing the optimism of the early 2000s that the disease might be stamped out, NPR Shots reports.
The ~130,000 US syphilis cases in 2019, according to new CDC data, are part of a record-breaking rise in STDs for the sixth year running, culminating in 2.5+ million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
Racial and ethnic minority groups, gay and bisexual men, and youth bear the brunt of the cases.

  • Gay and bisexual men made up nearly half of all syphilis cases

  • Congenital syphilis nearly quadrupled from 2015–2019

Syphilis is easy to treat, and testing is cheap. But it is tough to diagnose, especially as funding dried up for specialized—and, critically, anonymous—STD clinics and programs, NPR notes. 

And amid the pandemic, contact tracers and testing supplies have been diverted from STDs to COVID—so the outlook likely won’t improve anytime soon.

More Factors Fueling Syphilis's Surge:

  • Dating apps made sex more anonymous—and contact tracing much harder.
  • When HIV prevention meds became available, condom use declined.
  • With congenital syphilis, many of the mothers are vulnerable to trading sex for housing, food or drugs—and receive no prenatal care.
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