June 18, 2010
The number of syphilis infections in China is growing by 30 percent each year, state media reported recently. The STD is now one of the country's top five infectious diseases after being almost eradicated 50 years ago, according to a ministry of health representative quoted in China Daily.
In May alone, China had 32,000 new syphilis infections and two deaths attributed to the disease, the newspaper said. The number of congenital syphilis cases per 100,000 newborns rose from seven to 57 between 2003 and 2008, the report said.
The state media report follows an article in the May New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that chronicles how syphilis has become a "major scourge lurking in the shadows" in China.
"No other country has seen such a precipitous increase in reported syphilis cases in the penicillin era," said the NEJM article. The authors linked China's soaring syphilis rate to the unprecedented expansion of the country's economy in recent decades and a concurrent rise in its commercial sex industry.
Sex workers and men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by syphilis because of unsafe sex practices and the stigma that dissuades high-risk groups from seeking care, the NEJM article said. At least one-third of China's men who have sex with men are married and at risk of transmitting the disease to their wives, who could then transmit the STD to their babies, the authors reported.
Some 6 million women are believed to be sex workers in the country, China Daily reported, but other independent estimates suggest the actual number is twice as high.
The full report, "Syphilis and Social Upheaval in China," was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (2010;362(18)1658-1661).