Early testing and treatment important to curb spread of disease

Syphilis cases are surging. Early testing and treatment must be promoted in order to curb the spread of the disease. Its image as a disease of the past should be dispelled to strengthen activities to raise awareness and thus prevent the spread.

The number of syphilis cases confirmed this year has exceeded 9,000. The figure has already surpassed last year’s tally, which was the highest since 1999 when the current survey method was introduced.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria that typically causes bumps on the genitals and mouth and skin rashes. A variety of other symptoms can develop that make it difficult to distinguish the disease from some other illnesses. Without treatment, bacteria spread around the body, possibly leading to diseases of the heart and blood vessels, among others.

Shortly after the end of World War II, more than 200,000 people a year were becoming infected with syphilis. The widespread use of medication brought down the number of patients, with only about 500 annually confirmed in the 2000s. However, infections started increasing in the 2010s, then after peaking in 2018, they took a downward turn. But the figure has been rising sharply again.

The increasing traffic to and from overseas was considered a factor behind the rise in cases in recent years. However, in the past two years, the number of people traveling to and from Japan has plummeted due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Experts have also considered that the rise is caused by an increase in sexual contact among numerous unspecified people who meet via social media, but it has not been confirmed.

The relevant entities and local governments must analyze infection trends in detail and apply their findings to countermeasures.

In a bid to try to find out how the disease spreads, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in 2019 added items that should be reported to public health centers, such as patients’ history with sex services and their pregnancy status.

Of those infected, women who worked in the sex industry and men who used such services accounted for about 40% each.

By age group, men were dispersed across their 20s to 50s, while 60% of the infected women were in their 20s. One cannot help but be concerned that unemployment and poverty are prevailing among young women due to the pandemic, possibly contributing to the results.

It is also worrisome that there are as many as about 200 cases of pregnant women becoming infected each year. If the fetus contracts the disease, it could result in a miscarriage, stillbirth or birth with a disability caused by congenital syphilis, leaving a fear that it is no longer a problem for the mother alone.

Free and anonymous syphilis tests are available at public health centers. It is ideal to create an environment in which anyone is able to take the test free of anxiety. It is feared that infected people may transmit the disease to their partners without realizing it. It is important for each person to be aware of the syphilis epidemic and for those who are worried to get tested at an early stage.

People showing symptoms suggestive of syphilis need to see a doctor. Treatment with medication has been common in Japan, but the injection widely used overseas was also put into practical use this year. Patients at an early stage of infection can be treated with a single shot. It is hoped that they consult with their doctor and choose an appropriate treatment.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 17, 2022)