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Syphilis Rises Among New York Gay Men; Experts Fear Data Point to Increase in Risky Sexual Activity

September 27, 2002

Syphilis cases have increased dramatically among gay men in New York City, CDC officials reported Thursday. The increase prompted concern among public health experts that there has been resurgence in risky sexual activity. According to the CDC, syphilis cases in New York City more than doubled, to 282 in 2001 from 117 in 2000, marking the highest number of cases in seven years.

New York City Department of Health statistics also released Thursday show that 202 New Yorkers were diagnosed with syphilis in the first half of this year. Of these cases, 93 percent occurred among men and 81 percent involved men with male partners. More than half of the men surveyed also have HIV.

"It's a symptom or symbol that there's an increase in risky sexual behavior," said Thomas R. Frieden, NYCDOH commissioner. "We're seeing more of it, and we're seeing more of it particularly among men who have sex with men." Community agencies agreed with Frieden's assessment. "The syphilis rates are just one of the first flags and indicators," said Ronald Johnson, associate executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis. "This indicated that there are increases in the levels of unprotected sex."

The new cases fit some elements of past syphilis profiles. The average age of the person with syphilis held steady at 35. Three-quarters of respondents with syphilis said they had more than one sex partner, and one-third said they had been drinking or abusing drugs when they developed the disease. But the percentage of syphilis cases dropped among black men and rose among white men.

The most recent patients tend to be Manhattan dwellers who visit private physicians rather than clinics. Most alarming in the most recent cases is the number of patients who have HIV. "Many people think that HIV infection is not the death sentence it was once," said Jon Morgenstern, an associate professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Syphilis outbreaks have also appeared in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. In San Francisco, the number of cases has quadrupled in the past three years.

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Excerpted from:
Washington Post
09.27.02; Christine Haughney

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