CDC Official: We’re Seeing ‘Epidemic of Syphilis’ Among Gay Men

By Penny Starr | April 23, 2015 | 6:26pm EDT

Dr. Gail Bolan, director of Centers for Disease Control's Division of STD Prevention, spoke at an event hosted by the National Coalition of STD Directors on April 23, 2015 on Capitol Hill. ( Starr)

( – A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official cited an “epidemic” of syphilis among homosexual men during an event Thursday by a lobbying group pushing for an increase in federal funding for sexually transmitted disease prevention from $157 million to $212 million.

“We’re also seeing what we are calling pretty much an epidemic of syphilis among men who have sex with men – that really started in the early – 2000, 2002, but we’ve seen a dramatic increase since 2008,” Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said at a briefing by the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD).

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“We actually had some areas of the country that hadn’t seen a case of syphilis back to the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, and we thought we had a chance to eliminate this infection but we’re now challenged with this current epidemic,” Bolan said.

That epidemic is also spreading to the larger population, Bolan said, citing data that “reflects men who have sex with both men and women and that clearly has been slowly increasing since 2008.”

In California, Bolan said, there has been an increase in cases of ocular syphilis, which infects the eyes and can cause blindness.

“And again the trend is following our trend of syphilis – they’re mainly in HIV-infected MSM,” Boland said of the ocular syphilis. “A few cases have occurred, though, in HIV negative MSM and heterosexuals.”

Bolan spoke about the increasing threat of gonorrhea. In 2013, the CDC released the report, “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States,” which named gonorrhea as one of the Top Three “urgent threats” in the country.

“We’re very concerned about the threat of untreatable gonorrhea,” Bolan said. “Gonorrhea has been determined by the threat report at CDC to be one of the top three urgent threats in this country.

“We are down to the last antibiotic – class of antibiotic -- available to treat this organism and this organism has traditionally outsmarted us with every drug we’ve put at it,” Bolan said.

Bolan also said there is a rise in the spread of Shigella, a diarrhea that can be caused by “exposure to feces through sexual contact.” Both the CDC and its European counterpart have reported the spread of Shigella among MSM.

A handout distributed at the event, giving the reasoning for an increase in funding for CDC funding for fiscal year 2016 states that the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention and state and local health departments across the country “need additional federal resources to reverse the alarming and costly trends of STDs.”

“In fiscal year 2016 please support an increase of $54.7 million to ensure those on the front lines of STD prevention have funding to prepare for the emerging threat of drug-resistant gonorrhea, respond to the rising rates of syphilis, and other outbreaks,” the handout states.

A press release announcing NCSD’s annual congressional briefing promotes the use of condoms.

“In October of last year, NCSD launched the campaign “Condoms (STILL) Work!” to raise a clarion call about the lack of focus on condoms as the best method of preventing all STDs for sexually active people,” the press release states.

Nowhere in the materials handed out or in the comments made by Bolan or NCSD’s Executive Director Bill Smith was there mention of abstinence or monogamous relationships. On the NCSD’s website, abstinence is only mentioned in several posts on sex education.

Abstinence is also mentioned in a March 2014 announcement that “NCSD signed onto three separate coalition letters regarding funding for adolescent sexual health programs, funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and funding for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Among other requests, the first of the three letters asked that federal funding for the Competitive Abstinence Education grant program “be eliminated.”

"Abstaining from sexual activity is the best way an individual can prevent against STDs--- that is a fact and is also part of NCSD’s advocacy," Stephanie Arnold Pang, NCSD director of policy and communications, told "We also know that reducing an individual’s number of sex partners also reduces your risk of STDs.

"NCSD is not opposed to abstinence, but we do have concerns about abstinence-only messaging and how it prepares individuals for a future of healthy sexual activity," Pang said. "We believe in providing information and tools to all individuals to ensure they are able to make the best decisions about their sexual activity in order to stay healthy and prevent STDs."

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