Syphilis rampant in China as cash pays for unsafe sex

By Margie Mason

CHINA: Sex workers, gay and bisexual men drive the disease, say researchers

Syphilis is now the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in Shanghai. Photo / NZ Herald
Syphilis is now the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in Shanghai. Photo / NZ Herald

Every hour a baby is born in China with syphilis, as the world's fastest-growing epidemic of the disease is fuelled by men with new money from the nation's booming economy, researchers say.

The easy-to-cure bacterial infection, which was nearly wiped out in China five decades ago, is now the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in its largest city, Shanghai.

Prostitutes, with gay and bisexual men, many of whom are married with families, are driving the epidemic, according to a commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The increase reflects the country's staggering economic growth, providing both businessmen and migrant labourers more cash and opportunity to pay for unsafe sex while 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.

Unlike other sexually spread diseases, such as gonnorrhoea or chlamydia, syphilis can eventually ravage the mind and kill if left untreated. A shot of penicillin is a cheap cure, but many never experience specific symptoms and the disease remains 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.

The World Health Organisation estimates 12 million people are infected with syphilis worldwide each year, affecting about two million pregnancies, with about a 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."

- AP

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