SOME 250 years ago, a fifth of Londoners were estimated to have contracted syphilis before their 35th birthday.
Fear of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) – which can cause brain damage and blindness if left untreated – continued right into the Victorian era, which saw Brits implementing the Contagious Diseases Act to try and curb its deadly spread.
We've come a long way since those grisly moments in history.
But experts have sounded the alarm over a concerning rise in cases of the serious and life-threatening disease.
In the US, syphilis cases have leapt to levels not seen since the 1950s, a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed.
The health body recorded some 176,713 cases of the nasty STI in 2021, a steep rise from the 133,954 reported the previous year.
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In fact, US cases gave risen by leaps and bounds in the last two decades, after reaching an all time low in the year 2000, CDC data showed.
Of the over 170,000 cases of syphilis reported in the US in 2021, 53,767 were cases of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis, the most infectious stages of the disease. These saw a 28.6 per cent rise between 2020 and 2021, the CDC wrote.
Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men accounted for almost half of cases of P&S syphilis reported by males.
Although rates of this infectious stage of the disease were lower among women, rates still 'increased substantially in recent years', the CDC said.
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They shot up up 55.3 per cent in 2021 alone and have seen a staggering 217.4 per cent rise between 2017–2021.
This trend highlighted "the sustained increase in the heterosexual syphilis epidemic in the United States", according to the CDC.
The resurgence of syphilis in the U.S. "remains a significant source of concern," Dr Leandro Mena, director of CDC's Division of STD Prevention, wrote in the report.
The CDC also saw high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhoea in 2021.
It lead Dr Mean to conclude: "The U.S. STI epidemic shows no signs of slowing. The reasons for the ongoing increases are multifaceted — and so are the solutions."
The UK has also seen a recent rise in syphilis cases, though not as steep as the trend observed in the US.
A report published in October 2022 found "a marked increase (8.4 per cent; from 6,923 to 7,506) in the number of diagnoses of infectious syphilis (primary, secondary and early latent stages)."
"Diagnoses of infectious syphilis have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels and in some regions have exceeded them," the UK Health Security Agency wrote.
The agency called for consistent use to condoms and frequent sexual health screening to reduce transmission of the life threatening disease and other STIs.
The CDC first raised the alarm about rocketing US syphilis rates in September last year, after they rose sharply by 26 per cent post-pandemic.
The surge prompted US health officials to call for new prevention and treatment efforts.
Since the pandemic ended and the world opened up again, cases of the bacterial infection have been increasing all over the globe.
“It's pretty simple – more sexually transmitted infections occur when people are having more unprotected sex,” said Doctor Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
There may have been a surge in sexual activity as people emerged from Covid-19 lockdowns as "people felt liberated,” Dr Saag added.
But it's not just a feeling of post-pandemic liberation that is causing STIs to spread.
Data from the State of the Nation report from the Terrence Higgins Trust and BASHH revealed that in February 2020, cases of syphilis were up 165 per cent in the last decade.
Cases of gonorrhoea also rose by a staggering 249 per cent within the same time frame.
The bacterial infection is typically caught after close contact with an infected sore.
A small, painless sore or ulcer called a chancre will first be spotted, for sufferers of primary syphilis.
Most people only have one sore, but some people have several, and you may also have swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits.
A few weeks after these initial symptoms, those with syphilis may experience…
- A blotchy red rash that can appear anywhere on the body, but often develops on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- Small skin growths (similar to genital warts) – on women these often appear on the vulva and for both men and women they may appear around the anus
- White patches in the mouth
- Flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, headaches, joint pains and a high temperature (fever)
- Swollen glands
- Occasionally, patchy hair loss
Sexually active people are encouraged to take regular STI tests.
If untreated, the infection can have a number of health implications, leading to tertiary syphilis.
- Dementia symptoms
- Loss of co-ordination
- Vision problems or blindness
- Heart problems
Pregnant women who are unaware they have contracted the STI may risk devastating consequences for their unborn baby.
Syphilis can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or serious infection in the new-born (congenital syphilis).
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If you believe you have contracted the infection, it’s advisable to visit your GP as soon as possible.
The quicker syphilis is treated, the easier it is for your body to fight off the contagion.
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