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The New England Journal Of Medicine reports that syphilis is on the rise again in China. The country had almost eradicated the infection during the communist years, a positive side effect of its draconian crack-down on brothels. However recent social changes such as a general increase in disposable income and a huge increase in migrant workers from all over China and beyond have apparently made syphilis the most reported communicable disease in Shanghai.

A disproportionately high number of female sex workers, gay and bisexual men have contracted the infection. China’s policies towards these groups may be acting as a disincentive to sufferers seeking treatment.

China has been making efforts in recent years to increase the awareness of the dangers of sexually communicable diseases such as syphilis, but in a country with a culture of reserve, secrecy and just a little paranoia the required openness about sexual health might be difficult to achieve.

The tragedy of syphilis is that it is very treatable with antibiotics and could easily be brought under control. The flip side is that left untreated a sufferer can pass it on to numerous sexual partners, and in the case of women their own children while they are still in the womb.

In China at present every hour one child every hour is born with congenital syphilis, meaning the infection is beginning to affect two generations. Around 20 people in every 100,000 people in China are estimated to carry the infection and unless the Chinese government succeed in improving the country’s sexual health this can only get worse. Hopefully education and screening programs will turn the tide.

About Syphilis: Syphilis is caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria. It can affect the heart, aorta, brain, eyes and bones. Neurosyphilis can in extreme cases cause depression and psychosis, though this is relatively rare.

Sufferers can carry syphilis asymptomatically, making inadvertent transmission to others a risk. However a simple blood test is available to identify any sufferer of the disease.

Treatment with antibiotics, particularly in the disease’s early stages has a very high success rate.

Congenital Syphilis: Congenital syphilis occurs when children are infected in their mother’s womb. The outcome for a foetus can be very severe; 40% are still born, 40%-70% of live births will be infected with syphilis and 12% of those will die during infancy (figure from the US CDC)

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