Syphilis cases jump to highest level in 70 years — CDC issues warning

Syphilis cases jump to highest level in 70 years — CDC issues warning

Syphilis cases have soared to their highest level in more than seven decades, according to alarming new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A staggering 207,000 cases of syphilis were reported in the US in 2022 — an 80% increase from 2018.

“The syphilis crisis in our country is unacceptable,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press release Tuesday, sounding the alarm over the “critical” public health crisis.

According to CDC data, more than 170,000 cases of syphilis were reported in 1951. The number dropped dramatically after the widespread availability of antibiotics. By 1998, annual case numbers had fallen below 40,000, before rising again over the past two decades.

“In the United States, syphilis was close to being eradicated in the 1990s, so we know it is possible to reverse this epidemic,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STDs and TB Prevention.

Dr. Nima Majlesi, Director of Medical Toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital, told The Post that there are two main reasons for the rise in cases.

“People are using condoms less and less often,” he said, saying public health messages have “de-emphasized” the importance of safe sex in recent years.

Second, Dr. Majlesi says syphilis has become so uncommon in recent decades that it now often goes unrecognized, even by doctors, in its early stages.

“We diagnose it a little later, so until we do, [the patient] he may have already spread it,” he explained.


A staggering 207,000 cases of syphilis were reported in the US in 2022 — an 80% increase from 2018.
A staggering 207,000 cases of syphilis were reported in the US in 2022 — an 80% increase from 2018. New Africa – stock.adobe.com

The disease – also called “The Great Pretender” as its symptoms can resemble many other diseases – is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal or oral sex. The sores are painless, which means they often go untreated. Four to 10 weeks after infection, a rash often appears on the sufferer’s body.

Without medical treatment, syphilis can then spread to the brain, nervous system, or eyes, potentially causing blindness, deafness, and paralysis.

Meanwhile, figures show there are also rising rates of congenital syphilis across the country.

Congenital syphilis occurs when an infected mother passes the infection to her newborn. When transmitted during pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage, lifelong medical problems and infant death.

There were also more than 3,700 cases of congenital syphilis recorded among newborns in 2022 — more than 10 times the number diagnosed in 2012.

Late last year, Health and Human Services created the National Syphilis and Congenital Syphilis Syndrome (NSCSS) Federal Task Force in an effort to help slow the spread of the disease.


Syphilis sores are painless, which means they often go untreated.  4-10 weeks after infection, a rash often appears on the sufferer's body.
Syphilis sores are painless, which means they often go untreated. 4-10 weeks after infection, a rash often appears on the sufferer’s body. nuengneng – stock.adobe.com

Syphilis rates were highest among American Indians or Alaska Natives, but gay men and black Americans are also disproportionately affected, according to the CDC press release.

Despite making up 13% of the US population, black Americans accounted for nearly 32% of all syphilis cases.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to addressing this urgent issue and using all available means to eliminate disparities in our health care system,” HHS Secretary Becerra said in Tuesday’s statement.

The rising rates of syphilis come amid an “out of control” STD epidemic.

Last year, the CDC reported that gonorrhea cases were up 28 percent nationwide in 2021.

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