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Researchers Report Rise in Syphilis Cases in China


The number of new syphilis cases in China, according to the latest study, has risen dramatically after the sexually-transmitted disease had been virtually wiped out. The investigators say a number of factors could account for the steep rise in rates of syphilis, which often acts as a barometer of HIV infection rates. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Prior to the mid-20th century and the advent of penicillin, syphilis in China was a major cause of disease and death for hundreds of years.

But the authors of a new study, published in the Lancet, note that the sexually transmitted disease was virtually wiped out by the public health system under communist dictator Mao Tse-Tung.

After Mao died in 1979, data from China's National Center for STD Control in Nanjing show a steady rise in the number of people treated for syphilis throughout the country.

Between 1993 and 2005, the records show a five-fold increase in the number of reported cases of syphilis. During the same time period, the percentage of babies born with the disease jumped by 72 percent.

Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina co-authored the study.

"The prevalence of syphilis has risen very steeply, especially in sex workers and then in some urban cities," said Myron Cohen. "The epidemic of syphilis is present in the general population. This is a little bit different than the resurgence of syphilis in some other parts of the world where the epidemic of syphilis has been focused on men having sex with men."

One reason for the surge in syphilis in China, according to Cohen, is the country's transition to a western-style economy. Men have money to spend on prostitutes, which they didn't under the old communist system.

Also, Cohen says China's one-child policy has left fewer women for men to marry, so he says they are visiting prostitutes and becoming infected with syphilis.

Cohen notes the disease, which can cause devastating heart and neurological complications, is mild at first.

"Syphilis is kind of a masquerading problem; you might have an acute problem that's turning into a chronic problem but you don't know it as it's turning into a chronic problem," he said. "So, you might not seek health care. If you did seek health care, you might not go with the appropriate health care. You might just go with something cheaper."

Studies have showed that people who are infected with the virus that causes AIDS also frequently have syphilis. Experts say co-infection is the result of exposure to known HIV risk factors, including unprotected sex. Syphilis sores also provide a gateway for HIV.

The University of North Carolina's Myron Cohen and colleagues are currently involved in other research in China examining pockets of HIV and syphilis infection.