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Syphilis Epidemic Growing In China

May 6, 2010

Researchers said on Thursday that one child was born with syphilis every hour in China in 2008, as new money from the country’s growing economy fuels the world’s fastest-growing epidemic of the disease.

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, syphilis almost wiped out China 50 years ago, but it is now the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in Shanghai.

The researchers said that female sex workers and homosexual men are driving the infection rate, and there is evidence that social pressures are discouraging people from seeking treatment at official clinics.

“After China’s economy became increasingly market-based in the 1980s, the growing numbers of Chinese businessmen with money and young women without money translated into expanded demand and supply for the country’s commercial sex industry,” the article said.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be tackled with antibiotics if diagnosed early.  However, if the disease is left untreated then it can lead to paralysis, blindness and death.

The researchers said that no other country has seen such a rapid rise in syphilis cases since the discovery of penicillin.

According to the article, social stigma discourages the groups worst affected by the Chinese epidemic from seeking proper care. 

The article said that at least a third of the men in China that have sex with other men are also married and the transmission of syphilis to their wives and children is an important issue.

“The limited data that are available suggest that fear of being identified as a ‘social deviant’ may steer members of marginalized groups away from official … clinics where licensed physicians use national guidelines and have standardized laboratory facilities,” the researchers said.

“Although the stigma associated with syphilis and other STIs (sexually transmitted infections) is present the world over, its burden can be particularly severe in a social structure such as China’s, which highly values dignity or ‘face’ and social relationships.”

The researchers said that quick syphilis tests using finger-prick blood samples have allowed screening for the disease to be expanded outside clinics, to saunas, brothels and other entertainment venues.

The article said that government programs to help this expansion have laid the foundations to tackle the epidemic.  However, more funding and greater recognition of the disease as a public health issue were needed in order to bring the epidemic under control.

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