Syphilis, once considered a relic of the past, is making a startling resurgence across the globe. Despite being easily treatable with antibiotics, the number of cases has been steadily rising. Now, health experts are working to understand the factors behind this alarming increase and develop strategies to combat it.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It can be contracted through sexual contact, including oral, vaginal, or anal sex, as well as through blood transfusions or during pregnancy from mother to baby.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 6 million new cases of syphilis occur every year. While the infection can be treated and cured with antibiotics, if left untreated, it can cause severe complications, including neurologic, cardiovascular, and reproductive health issues.

One of the main factors contributing to the global increase in syphilis cases is changes in sexual behavior. The advent of dating apps and online platforms has made it easier for people to connect and engage in casual sexual encounters, often without using protection. This has led to an increase in risky sexual behaviors, including multiple partners and inconsistent condom use.

Another factor is the resurgence of high-risk populations, including men who have sex with men (MSM). In many countries, rates of syphilis are disproportionately higher among MSM, often due to barriers to healthcare access, discrimination, and stigma. Furthermore, substance abuse, such as crystal methamphetamine or intravenous drug use, is prevalent within this population, increasing the risk of transmission.

In addition to changes in sexual behavior and populations at high risk, the availability and misuse of antibiotics have also played a role in the syphilis resurgence. Misdiagnosis, inadequate treatment, or incomplete courses of antibiotics can contribute to treatment failure and the spread of drug-resistant strains. This highlights the importance of proper diagnosis, treatment, and adherence to treatment regimens.

Furthermore, social determinants of health, such as poverty, lack of education, and limited access to healthcare, contribute to the rise in syphilis cases. Disadvantaged communities often face barriers in accessing sexual health services, leading to delayed diagnosis or inadequate treatment.

To address the global increase in syphilis cases, comprehensive strategies are needed. Firstly, there must be increased investment in sexual health education and awareness campaigns, targeting both the general population and high-risk groups. Providing accurate information about safe sex practices, regular testing, and the availability of treatment is vital.

Equally important is improving access to sexual health services, especially in disadvantaged communities and areas with high syphilis prevalence. This includes ensuring affordable and confidential testing, treatment, and follow-up care. Engaging community organizations, advocacy groups, and healthcare providers is crucial in promoting integrated prevention and treatment programs.

Additionally, efforts must be made to reduce the social stigma surrounding syphilis and other STIs. This can be achieved through community engagement, destigmatization campaigns, and increasing awareness about the importance of regular testing for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or relationship status.

Finally, research and development efforts should focus on the development of new diagnostic tools, improved treatment options, and the identification of drug-resistant strains to ensure effective management.

The global resurgence of syphilis is a concerning public health issue. It serves as a reminder that infectious diseases can make a comeback if not adequately addressed. By addressing changes in sexual behavior, high-risk populations, antibiotic misuse, and social determinants of health, it is possible to reverse this upward trend and eliminate syphilis as a global health threat.

About the author

Kwame Anane