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Syphilis is making a comeback

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Syphilis, once nearly eliminated in the US, is on the rise again — and gay men account for a bulk of the increase.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the US's annual rate of syphilis cases nearly doubled from 2.9 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 5.3 per 100,000 in 2013. Men accounted for about 91.1 percent of all cases in 2013, according to the CDC.


Many of these cases occurred among gay men, but not all jurisdictions reported sexual orientation. In areas that did report sexuality, 83.9 percent of all syphilis cases in 2012 were attributed to men having sex with men, up from 77.7 percent in 2009.

CDC researchers linked the rise to several issues: risky sexual behaviors (multiple and anonymous partners), poor reporting practices in the health-care system, and anti-LGBT cultural stigmas that make it harder for gay men to open up to doctors about their full sexual histories.

The CDC, in response to the outbreaks, advised the general population to remain cautious of the disease and adopt safer practices, including less sex partners and better use of latex condoms. Doctors and patients, CDC researchers said, should also do a better job reporting syphilis diagnoses to current and former sex partners, and health officials should take steps to better target and serve LGBT populations.

Syphilis is a bacteria-based STD that can lead to life-threatening complications if it's not treated early. It spreads through direct contact with a syphilis sore during anal, vaginal, or oral sex. These sores are the primary indicators of syphilis, and the disease sometimes shows no other symptoms. But syphilis can get pretty serious: it can damage internal organs and lead to difficulty moving, paralysis, numbness, blindness, dementia, and even death.

The good news is syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics if caught early. The bad news is the antibiotics can't reverse damage done by the disease, so it needs to be caught as soon as possible to avoid permanent harm.

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