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Syphilis rates are up in gay and bisexual men; here's why

Syphilis — an illness that’s been around for centuries, afflicting monarchs, artists and regular folk alike — is on the rise in the U.S. Rates of the sexually transmitted disease are climbing especially quickly among gay and bisexual men, a new government report shows. The increase may have something to do with more testing and better options for treating another condition which often goes hand in hand, said one expert.

In 2015, gay and bisexual men made up more than 60 percent of early syphilis cases, the new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Researchers analyzed data from 44 states and found that the national rate of early stage syphilis in gay and bisexual men was an estimated 309 cases per 100,000. That figure is 106 times higher than the rate among heterosexual men (2.9 cases per 100,000), and 168 times higher than in women, according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Gay and bisexual men living in the South had the highest rates, with North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana reporting more cases of the disease. In North Carolina, for example, there were 748 cases per 100,000 gay and bisexual men, while Alaska had the fewest cases, only 73 for every 100,000.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection and anyone who is sexually active — not only gay and bisexual men — can get it through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It often starts as a painless sore on the mouth, genitals or rectum. The disease spreads when people have contact with sores on other people.

Raising awareness of pill that can stop spread of HIV 01:28

The increase in syphilis rates among gay and bisexual men most likely reflects the fact that more men are going to health care providers to be tested for HIV, said Dr. Robert Grant, chief medical officer of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Now that we have effective therapies for HIV, people who were previously untested and tested infrequently are now getting tested. Sexually transmitted infections tend to go together. If they come in and ask for HIV testing, we test for syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well,” Grant told CBS News.

You may not know you have it for years. “Most people diagnosed with syphilis have no symptoms at all,” said Grant.

But if the disease is left untreated, it can cause damage to the heart, brain and other organs, and it can be life threatening. Infected pregnant women can pass syphilis to an unborn child.

Syphilis is curable with a shot of penicillin.

“One injection for almost all people, sometimes as many as three,” Grant said. “People have everything to gain and nothing to lose by getting an HIV and syphilis test. This report will help reinvigorate people’s awareness and hopefully send the message that by getting a test and following through with treatment, we can decrease or even eliminate syphilis as a problem.”

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