This STD Is Back From the Dead for a Terrifying Reason

June 28th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Hey sailor: Syphilis — the once widespread sexually transmitted disease that was all but eliminated with the development of penicillin last century — is making an alarming comeback, according to a Tuesday report in The Atlantic.

The Atlantic reported:

"There were just 6,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis in 2000, and the CDC briefly thought the disease’s total elimination was within reach.

"But in November, the CDC reported that there were nearly 20,000 cases in 2014. While the rates haven’t climbed close to the devastating levels of the early 1990s, they’re rising at an alarming rate. Perhaps most concerning, the past two years have seen a cluster of cases of syphilis of the eye and a rise in cases of congenital syphilis — something even developing countries have been able to eliminate."

Syphilis cases have spiked dramatically in the U.S., according to CDC data.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in June issued a recommendation that high-risk patients — men sexually active with other men and men and women with HIV — be screened for the disease every three months.

You might have caught wind of the new health crisis in local news stories.

Syphilis is an extremely contagious and gruesome disease. In early stages, it causes visible sores and rashes. Left untreated, it can result in disfiguring growths and affect the heart, brain and nervous system, leading to paralysis, blindness, dementia, deafness, impotence, and, eventually, death.

Indiana saw a 70 percent rise in syphilis cases — to 505 cases in 2015 from 297 in 2014, according to a state health official cited in June in the Chicago Tribune.

Indiana's syphilis problem is alarming but not unique. In April, Texas's Lubbock County issued a syphilis alert after officials reported 24 cases in 2016, triple the number the county saw at the same time in 2015, according to a local NBC news affiliate.

Why is this happening?

The rise in syphilis cases may be related to health clinic closures and cuts in STD programs.

Atlantic reporters Olga Khazan and Russell Berman wrote:

“In 2012, more than half of all STD programs in the country saw budget cuts. Many of them reduced their hours and screening capacity as a result. Since 2008, local health departments shed nearly 44,000 jobs. Syphilis rates have risen more rapidly in states that have underfunded syphilis prevention efforts, according to the CDC. After a wave of clinic closures in the past four years in New York, for example, 50,000 fewer people have visited the clinics for testing.”

Scientists have also identified certain strains of syphilis that resist macrolides — a type of antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat outbreaks.

Lola Stamm, a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, discovered in 2000 that a strain of Treponema pallidum — the bacterium that causes syphilis — had a small DNA abnormality that made it resistant to macrolide antiobitics, according to a June 10 NPR report.

T. pallidum can still be treated with penicillin intramuscular shots, but its resistance to macrolides is a significant setback to treatment.

The pills are far easier to give patients than shots, especially in developing countries, where clean needles can be scarce.

“T. pallidum strains now resistant to multiple macrolide drugs have led to syphilis cases in China, the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and most recently Cuba,” Rae Ellen Bichell reported on NPR.

Stamm told NPR that she anticipates T. pallidum will also develop resistance to the antibiotic doxycycline.

"Syphilis has not gone away, and it's not going away anytime soon," she said.

[h/t The Atlantic]