Even if you paid attention during your middle school health class on sexual education, you would be forgiven for not knowing very much about syphilis. This is a somewhat common bacterial infection that is transmitted through sexual activity and, sometimes, through childbirth. The bacteria—which is actually named Treponema pallidum—is not a persistent one, as it can be easily killed with a course of penicillin.
And this is also one reason it is not discussed as much as other sexually transmitted infections. Because it responds well—and quickly—to treatment, syphilis is typically not of major concern.
Over the past few decades, though, the disease has spread and is currently on the rise. Some experts attribute this to modern pharmaceutical advances that have allowed people with HIV to participate in sexual intercourse without the need for condoms. Antiretroviral therapy, for example, suppresses HIV to such a degree that it is no longer detectable and, thus, nearly impossible to transmit to another person. And pre-exposure prophalaxis (PrEP) treatments allow people to have sex with HIV-positive partners with a 90 percent efficacy rate.
Of course, sex without a condom might be a nice change for HIV-positive folks, but this choice does not prevent the transmission of other STIs; and that includes syphilis. And with dating (and hookup) mobile apps on the rise, STD rates are on the rise as well.
But just how prevalent is syphilis? Well, more than 101,000 people were diagnosed with the infection, in the United States, in 2017. And from this data, experts are now concerned that we may see a similar bump in the UK and Australia, too. In addition, some figures suggest that increased heroin and methamphetamine use, in the US, may also contribute to these higher syphilis rates.
Where you live might be a factor as well. Some analysts ascribe that those who live in small rural areas might be afraid to see a doctor they know personally to discuss this problem. In some cases, doctors who work in rural populations might not be as familiar with such a condition (as a doctor in a large city) and, thus, might struggle to accurately diagnose and treat it. In addition, rural communities typically do not have the same access to high quality health care as those in big cities and, as a result, there is often less circulating knowledge about sexual transmitted diseases and infections; as well as more conservative opinions about sex, in general.