CDC Official: Syphilis Rates Among Gay Men Highest Since Before Start Of HIV Epidemic

Penny Starr | April 13, 2016 | 6:11pm EDT
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Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, spoke at an event on sexually transmitted diseases on Capitol Hill on April 13, 2016. ( Starr)

( – The rate of syphilis infection among homosexual men has increased to a level not seen since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

“We’re concerned about our high levels of syphilis among men who have sex with men – really we’re back to the level of disease – burden of disease – in gay men that we were seeing before HIV in this country,” said Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention.

She was speaking at an event held to lobby for federal funding to fight sexually transmitted diseases in the United States.

A CDC fact sheet on sexually-transmitted disease (STD) surveillance in 2014 refers to a “troubling rise in syphilis infections among men, particularly gay and bisexual men.”

“Trend data show rates of syphilis are increasing at an alarming rate (15.1 percent in 2014),” it says.

“While rates have increased among both men and women, men account for more than 90 percent of all primary and secondary syphilis cases,” the fact sheet says.

“Men who have sex with men (MSM) account for 83 percent of male cases where the sex of the sex partner is known,” the fact sheet states. “Primary and secondary syphilis are the most infectious stages of the disease, and if not adequately treated, can lead to long-term infection, which can cause visual impairment and stroke.”

“Syphilis infection can also place a person at increased risk for acquiring or transmitting HIV infection,” it says. “Available surveillance data indicate that an average of half of MSM who have syphilis are also infected with HIV.”

A stuffed toy version of the syphilis bacteria featured at Wednesday’s Capitol Hill briefing. ( Starr)

William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, said his group and other partners have requested $8.1 million in federal funding for fiscal year 2017 to fight STDs.

Featured at the event was a pink stuffed toy meant to represent the bacteria that causes syphilis. Smith said every lawmakers on Capitol Hill received one – or an equivalent toy representing the bacteria that causes gonorrhea – as part of an invitation to Wednesday’s event.

“Everyone on the Hill got syphilis or gonorrhea this week,” he quipped.

April is STD awareness month.

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