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Severe type of syphilis found in men with AIDS

A particularly serious form of the sexually transmitted bacterial disease syphilis has been detected in gay and bisexual U.S. men infected with the AIDS virus, federal health officials reported on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

A particularly serious form of the sexually transmitted bacterial disease syphilis has been detected in gay and bisexual U.S. men infected with the AIDS virus, federal health officials reported on Thursday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked 49 HIV-infected gay and bisexual men who had "symptomatic early neurosyphilis" from January 2002 to June 2004 in four cities — Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, New York.

The CDC cited the report as further evidence that gay and bisexual men, many also infected with HIV, are the driving force behind increases in U.S. syphilis cases this decade.

The findings also indicate that these men are engaging in the same risky, unprotected sex that can spread the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

"These are primarily infections that people are probably getting because they're not using condoms," said Dr. Thomas Peterman of the CDC's Division of STD Prevention, an author of the report.

In some instances, the men involved have the attitude that they do not need safe-sex practices because they already are infected with HIV, Peterman said.

Since dropping to the lowest level on record in 2000, the U.S. rate of syphilis has risen steadily. Gay and bisexual men accounted for 7 percent of syphilis cases in 2000, but more than 60 percent in 2005, CDC officials have said.

Symptomatic early neurosyphilis is a rare manifestation of syphilis usually occurring within the first year of infection.

Can lead to blindness, stroke
Ordinary syphilis is readily curable with antibiotics in its early stages. Neurosyphilis can lead to blindness or stroke, Peterman said.

"There are a number of studies that continue to show that there are some HIV-infected and some uninfected men who have sex with men who continue to have large numbers of (sexual) partners and anonymous sex. This is one of the consequences of that," Peterman said.

Of the 49 HIV-positive gay and bisexual men with symptomatic early neurosyphilis, 63 percent were non-Hispanic whites, 18 percent were non-Hispanic blacks and 14 percent were Hispanic. Their average age was 38.

"I think the bigger message is that we need to get control of syphilis. And control of syphilis would require safe-sex behavior, reducing the number of partners, and using condoms with those partners," Peterman said.

"And for men who have sex with men, it means getting tested for HIV and other STDs at least once a year," Peterman added.

Syphilis, like many other sexually transmitted diseases, raises the likelihood of infection by or transmission of HIV.