Europe faces ‘looming syphilis epidemic’ thanks to dating apps and reduced fear of HIV
Syphilis stopped being “a disease of the past” after its worrying resurgence in Europe, health experts told RT. Less fear of contracting HIV and the rise of dating apps are among the factors behind the problem.
The spread of syphilis in Europe is intensifying due to worrying trends in human behavior, the head of the HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and viral hepatitis program at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Andrew Amato-Gauci, told RT.
Various factors play into the outbreak, such as “people having sex without condoms, multiple sexual partners and a reduced fear of acquiring HIV from condomless sex,” he said.
A new report by the ECDC shows that between 2010 and 2017, the number of confirmed cases of syphilis across the EU soared by 70 percent.
Certain countries have seen a surge of the sexually-transmitted disease, with Iceland ultimately becoming the ‘leader’, as the number of cases has grown by 876 percent there. Ireland follows with 224 percent growth, while Britain and Germany have both seen their syphilis rates more than double.
According to the ECDC, “men having sex with men” (MSM) made up around two-third of the cases reported between 2007 and 2017, where sexual orientation was known. Heterosexual men constitute 23 percent of the cases, and women, 15 percent.
Amato-Gauci said that the growing disregard for the use of condoms is not the only factor fueling the surge.
These include: more testing for syphilis in some groups, such as men who have sex with men, lack of or insufficient sex education, poor access to condoms for teenagers and young adults, sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including the use of psychoactive ‘party drugs.’
There are reports that dating apps like Tinder and Grindr also contribute to the spread of the disease. Amato-Gauci pointed out that these services “may facilitate more sexual encounters, and with that transmission of STI [sexually-transmitted infections] like syphilis.” At the same time, different apps can be used for promoting disease prevention among users, he noted.
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To reverse the spread of syphilis, the countries need to encourage people to use condoms “consistently,” as well as developing better screening and education programs, Amato-Gauci said.
Lorenzo Giacani, associate professor in the Departments of Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, told RT that the resurgence of syphilis in developed countries requires a robust response.
It is definitely safe and necessary to speak of a looming epidemic of syphilis in Europe, disproportionally affecting men that have sex with men (MSM), but not only.
“The ECDC data clearly shows that syphilis is not a disease of the past but very present among us,” Giacani said.
Among the most troubling trends in developed nations, he noted a “significant rise” in congenital syphilis rates, which means a greater number of cases in which the disease is transmitted to the fetus during gestation.
There is currently no vaccine for syphilis, but several research groups are working on developing one, including Giacani’s. He believes that “more could be done” by various European countries to develop it and study the problem.
“For example, the MSM population, which is more heavily affected by this disease, should team up with scientists to amplify their collective voices and request more government-sponsored efforts to promote research on a syphilis vaccine,” he said.
“Government involvement at this stage is mandatory, as [the medical] industry might not see such effort as a cost-effective one.”
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