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Syphilis is an infectious systemic disease that may be either congenital or acquired through sexual contact or contaminated needles.
Syphilis has both acute and chronic forms that produce a wide variety of symptoms affecting most of the body's organ systems. The range of symptoms makes it easy to confuse syphilis with less serious diseases and ignore its early signs. Acquired syphilis has four stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary) and can be spread by sexual contact during the first three of these four stages.
Syphilis, which is also called lues (from a Latin word meaning "plague"), has been a major public health problem since the sixteenth century. The disease was treated with mercury or other ineffective remedies until World War I, when effective treatments based on arsenic or bismuth were introduced. These were succeeded by antibiotics
after World War II. At that time, the number of cases in the general population decreased, partly because of aggressive public health measures. This temporary decrease, combined with the greater amount of attention given to AIDS in recent years, leads some people to think that syphilis is no longer a serious problem. In fact, the number of cases of syphilis in the United States rose between 1980 and 2001. This increase affected both sexes, all races, all parts of the nation, and all age groups, including adults over 60. The number of women of childbearing age with syphilis is the highest that has been recorded since the 1940s. About 25,000 cases of infectious syphilis in adults are reported annually in the United States. It is estimated, however, that 400,000 people in the United States need treatment for syphilis every year, and that the annual worldwide total is 50 million persons.
In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joined several other federal agencies in announcing the "National Plan to Eliminate Syphilis in the United States." Eliminating the disease was defined as the absence of transmission of the disease; that is, no transmission after 90 days following the report of an imported index case. The national goals for eliminating syphilis include bringing the annual number of reported cases in the United States below 1000, and increasing the number of syphilis-free counties to 90% by 2005. In November 2002, the CDC released figures for 2000–2001, which indicate that the number of reported cases of primary and secondary syphilis rose slightly. This rise, however, occurred only among men who have sex with other men. The CDC also stated that the number of new cases of syphilis has actually declined among women as well as among non-Hispanic blacks.
The increased incidence of syphilis since the 1970s is associated with drug abuse as well as changes in sexual behavior. The connections between drug abuse and syphilis include needle sharing and exchanging sex for drugs. In addition, people using drugs are more likely to engage in risky sexual practices. As of 2002, the risk of contracting syphilis is particularly high among those who abuse crack cocaine.
With respect to changing patterns of conduct, a sharp increase in the number of people having sex with multiple partners makes it more difficult for public health doctors to trace the contacts of infected persons. Women are not necessarily protected by having sex only with other women; in the past few years, several cases have been reported of female-to-female transmission of syphilis through oral-genital contact. In addition, the incidence of syphilis among men who have sex with other men continues to rise. Several studies in Latin America as well as in the United States reported in late 2002 that unprotected sexual intercourse is on the increase among gay and bisexual men.
Changing patterns of sexual behavior have led to a striking increase in the number of cases of syphilis in eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union; Slovenia reported an 18-fold increase in reported cases of syphilis just between 1993 and 1994. Over half of the new cases were linked to a source of infection in another European country.
In general, high-risk groups for syphilis in the United States and Canada include:
The chances of contracting syphilis from an infected person in the early stages of the disease during unprotected sex range from 30–50%.
Author Info: Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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