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Syphilis Cases Spiking Across The Nation, Particularly In Women

/ The Upper Cumberland's News Leader
Syphilis Cases Spiking Across The Nation, Particularly In Women

Syphilis cases are on the rise again as health officials track a nationwide epidemic impacting heterosexual couples like never before.

Tennessee Tech Microbiology Professor David Beck said syphilis cases are typically five times higher among gay men. In 2022, women accounted for nearly a quarter of nationwide syphilis cases. Beck said a major part of the problem is a failure to get tested due to the lack of noticeable symptoms. He said most people get a painless canker on or near the genitals, and the lack of pain may not lead them to see a healthcare professional.

“If I don’t have a runny nose, why would I go get a flu test done,” Beck said.  “Does that make sense? If I get exposed to syphilis and don’t have any symptoms, then why would I go to an STD clinic and get tested? And that’s the biggest problem.”

Beck said the rise in women is alarming because it can lead to congenial syphilis in infants that can be devastating for long-term health.

“What can happen is, I get an infection in the baby, I get destruction in the nasal turbinates,” Beck said. “If I don’t treat the baby, then the baby gets sick for a long time, but if I treat the baby, those nasal turbinates don’t really grow back.”

Beck said cases in straight men and women have grown over 200 percent since 2017. He said cases constantly fluctuate, but the sudden rise in cases in women is harder to control.

“It’s not like people’s behavior has suddenly changed,” Beck said. “People still like each other at about the same rate, you know.”

Beck said with both primary syphilis and congenial syphilis, the long-term effects can be difficult. He said after decades of being infected, people can develop neurosyphilis, leading to major behavioral changes, loss of hearing or vision, and even death.

“Other than practicing safe sex using condoms and things like this to reduce that, obviously abstinence works better than safe sex,” Beck said. “I’m not sure what’s going to bring the numbers down until we start getting the numbers high enough that we want to start implementing a broader screening program.”

Beck said Putnam County is now above the recommended line for screening in sexually active people between the ages of 15 and 44. He said all pregnant mothers should get screened in the first trimester, and he recommends screening again at 28 weeks.


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