A new report from the Alaska Health Department notes that syphilis infections have “increased dramatically” since 2018, disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men.
A similar trend is playing out across the nation. According to the CDC, between 2020 and 2021, the number of syphilis cases has increased by 29% in the U.S., driven in large part by gay or bisexual men.
The latest Alaska report looks at infections found in 2022, and relies on data obtained from the CDC’s National Electronic Disease Surveillance System and syphilis case management records.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact percentage of Alaskans who identify as LGBTQ, a 2019 survey found the number to be 3.7%. Despite the relative small population, this group comprised at least 17% of Alaska’s syphilis cases in 2022, according to the new state report.
Last year saw 424 syphilis cases statewide, or roughly 53 cases per 100,000 people. Of those infected 58 identified as gay or bisexual men, while 14 identified as bisexual women. Another 46 infections were among people whose sexual identities were either unknown or undisclosed.
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The bacterial disease is frequently transmitted during anal and oral sex, as well as vaginal sex, passing from one person to the next through direct contact with sores on the mouth, penis or anus. It is not transmitted through casual contact with objects such as toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools or shared clothing or utensils.
Once contracted, however, syphilis can cause serious health problems, including brain and nerve damage, eye problems, and even blindness. It’s also linked to an increased risk of transmission of HIV infection.
Among Alaskans infected with syphilis last year, 24 (6%) were coinfected with HIV, 57 (14%) were coinfected with chlamydia, and 30 (7%) were coinfected with gonorrhea.
Despite the fact that homosexual acts are well-established risk factors in transmitting syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, the Alaska Health Department’s report makes no mention of abstaining from these behaviors. In fact, the only suggestions offered by the state are to increase testing, screening and examinations among high-risk groups.