A range of unique biological and social forces are driving a substantial syphilis epidemic in China, according to the results of a national surveillance programme published in this week's issue of The Lancet.
Syphilis infection can have devastating health consequences, including acute cutaneous manifestations such as genital ulcers, chronic severe and debilitating compromise of the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and serious effects on reproductive and neonatal health.
During the first half of the 20th century, China experienced one of the biggest syphilis epidemics in human history. But the introduction of mass screening, free treatment, and the closure of brothels was highly effective, and resulted in the virtual elimination of syphilis and STDs by the 1960s, and for the next 20 years. However, long-term control of syphilis has proved difficult, and recent sporadic reports have provided clues to the magnitude of the spread of syphilis throughout China.
To investigate, Xiang-Sheng Chen (National Center for STD Control, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College Institute of Dermatology, Nanjing, China) and colleagues calculated the incidence of syphilis throughout China by collecting and assessing case report data from China's national STD surveillance system. They found that after remaining just below 02 cases per 100 000 people from 1989 to 1993, the total incidence of syphilis increased from 017 cases per 100 000 in 1993 to 65 cases per 100 000 in 1999. Between 2000 and 2005, the average incidence of primary and secondary syphilis was 513 cases per 100 000 people per year.
The investigators also found a very rapid rate of increase in the incidence of congenital syphilis, with an average yearly increase of 719%, from 001 cases per 100 000 livebirths in 1991 to 1968 cases per 100 000 livebirths in 2005.