A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study presented at the National STD Prevention Conference in Philadelphia this week shows that gay and bisexual men who have syphilis tend to get diagnosed later and remain infectious longer than heterosexuals, GayHealth.com reports. Gay men are 45% less likely to be diagnosed with the disease during the primary stage of infection, allowing them to potentially expose sex partners to the virus for longer periods of time. Researchers analyzed data from 201 primary and secondary syphilis cases diagnosed in San Diego County between January 2000 and December 2003. Seventy-two percent of the cases were reported among gay and bisexual men. In addition to being diagnosed later, gay and bisexual men with syphilis also tended to have a higher number of sex partners than heterosexual men and were less likely to have contact information for their sex partners, either because they met them online or had anonymous sex.
The CDC researchers called for targeted prevention programs to address the health needs of gay and bisexual men, including campaigns to urge them to be tested for syphilis infection to better diagnose the disease at its earliest stages.
Primary syphilis is marked by the appearance of small, painless open sores--or chancres--on the genitals, anus, or in the mouth, if the bacteria is transmitted through oral sex. Secondary syphilis is marked by the spread of the bacteria throughout the body about two to eight weeks after primary infection, and includes such symptoms as a skin rash that commonly appears on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; lesions in the mouth or on the penis; and such general symptoms as fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and swollen lymph nodes. Although syphilis is most easily spread through the open sores during primary infection, the sexually transmitted disease can still be transmitted through unprotected sex during secondary infection. Tertiary or late-stage syphilis generally occurs within three to 15 years of infection and includes neurological and cardiac complications that can result in death. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotic treatment.