Rising economy spurs syphilis spike in China
Baby is born with disease every hour, researchers say
Every hour a baby is born in China with syphilis, as the world’s fastest-growing epidemic of the disease is fueled by men with new money from the nation’s booming economy, researchers say.
The easy-to-cure bacterial infection, nearly wiped out in China five decades ago, is now the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in its largest city, Shanghai.
Prostitutes along with gay and bisexual men, many of whom are married with families, are driving the epidemic, according to a commentary published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The increase reflects the country’s staggering economic growth, providing both businessmen and migrant laborers more cash and opportunity to pay for unsafe sex away from home.
“In the ’50s and ’60s in China, syphilis and other STDs were extremely uncommon. The number of new cases has just rapidly accelerated,’’ Dr. Joseph Tucker, lead author and an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in an interview. “Even one baby born with syphilis in China is unacceptable.’’
Unlike other sexually spread diseases, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, syphilis can eventually ravage the mind and kill if left untreated. A shot of penicillin is a cheap cure, but many people never experience symptoms and the disease goes undiagnosed.
With no mandatory routine screening in place for pregnant women in China, the rate of mother-to-child transmission jumped from 7 to 57 cases per 100,000 live births between 2003 and 2008, Tucker said.
In the United States, despite laws in most states requiring testing during pregnancy, the disease is also making a comeback after nearly being eliminated 10 years ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month that after a 14-year decline, the number of babies born with syphilis rose from 8 to 10 cases per 100,000 live births from 2005 to 2008, mostly among black women in the South. The country’s overall syphilis rate rose 17 percent in 2008 from the year before, with more than 60 percent of cases linked to gay sex.
The World Health Organization estimates 12 million people are infected with syphilis worldwide each year, affecting some 2 million pregnancies, with about one quarter of them resulting in miscarriages or stillbirths.
Another quarter of the babies who survive are born underweight or with serious infections, upping a newborn’s risk of death during the first fragile weeks of life. Syphilis can also cause deafness, neurological problems, or bone deformities in newborns.
“This damage is irreversible,’’ said Dr. Connie Osborne, a senior HIV adviser at WHO in China. “Prevention of maternal syphilis combined with routine screening of pregnant women and early treatment of neonatal syphilis can prevent most, if not all, cases.’’
Syphilis was nearly eradicated in China in the 1960s after a propaganda blitz to shut down brothels which included mass screening and treatment of prostitutes. But as free-market reforms thrust the nation’s economy into high gear in the 1980s, the disease rebounded at an unprecedented rate.