Syphilis Outbreak – originally posted in April of 2008

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that syphilis rates continued to rise in 2007. The disturbing fact is that the surge is being driven by cases among men who have sex with men (MSM), who accounted for 64 percent of the known syphilis infections last year.  That’s up from five percent in 1999. It is important to note that Symptoms of syphilis can go unnoticed or misdiagnosed. The CDC’s website notes: “Many people infected with syphilis do not have any symptoms for years, yet remain at risk for late complications if they are not treated. […] Thus, transmission may occur from persons who are unaware of their infection.” 

 What is the danger?

Syphilis is especially worrisome because, if it goes untreated, it can lead to serious health conditions later on in life.  It can also complicate other infections such as HIV.  It is also important to note that Syphilis can be transmitted through a variety of sexual acts, not just intercourse.  So a condom won’t necessarily protect you. 

Signs of Syphilis

Syphilis usually begins with the appearance of a single sore (called a chancre), but there may be multiple sores. The time between infection with syphilis and the start of the first symptom can range from 10 to 90 days. The chancre is usually firm, round, small, and painless. The chancre lasts 3 to 6 weeks, and it heals on its own. Note, however, that the infection doesn’t’ go away without proper treatment.

As the disease progresses, it may include fever, swollen lymph glands, rash, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. The signs of this “secondary stage” of syphilis will resolve with or without treatment, but, again, it doesn’t go away.

In its later stages, many years after the initial infection, the disease can cause damage to internal organs, the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Signs and symptoms of the “late stage” include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.

What can you do?

Get tested.  All sexually active MSM should receive testing for a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases at least once a year (as recommended by the CDC).

You’re not going to hear much about this in the mainstream media and, chances are, your doctor isn’t going to recommend being tested for an STD. So it’s up to you to take matters into your own hands. Syphilis is easily cured in its early stages. A single injection of penicillin will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis for longer than a year. For people who are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics are available.    

Your doctor can perform the test for syphilis. The Allegheny County Health Department also provides free testing. You can find other local testing sites (some will maintain your anonymity) at in the drop-down resources menu, under “PA Service Providers.”    

For more information about MSM and syphilis, you can go to the CDC’s Syphilis and MSM web page

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