20 March 2008
BARCELONA – A decade after it was thought to be virtually eradicated in the developed world, syphilis is making a comeback in Spain and other West European countries in an alarming sign that high-risk sexual practices are once again becoming commonplace.
Over the last 10 years the number of cases diagnosed in Spain of the debilitating bacterial-borne disease more than doubled from 763 in 1997 to 1,734 in 2007, according to figures from the National Epidemiological Centre. That number, however, may just be the tip of the iceberg, experts warn.
"The evolution of the disease has caught us by surprise," admits José del Olmo, the secretary general at the Health Ministry.
The problem, he and other experts believe, is an increase in the number of people engaging in high-risk practices now that fears about AIDS and HIV have receded as the epidemic has dropped from the headlines. In particular, teenagers and young people who have reached sexual maturity in recent years are particularly likely to take such risks as engaging in unprotected sex and having multiple partners.
"More people are engaging in high-risk sexual practices. That is evident from trends such as the rise in unwanted pregnancies, the increased incidence of HIV in homosexual men and the increase in cases of other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea," Del Olmo says.
However, less awareness and concern about AIDS may not be the only factor influencing the spread of syphilis and other STDs. Most people, and even many doctors, have little knowledge of the symptoms of syphilis, leading to cases of misdiagnosis that leaves the patient at risk of further health complications and their partners exposed to contagion. Often people ignore the first symptoms, which usually take the form of chancres at the point of contagion, and only seek medical help when they burst out in rashes, ulcers and start to suffer more serious effects.
Sexual tourism by Spaniards and other Europeans in developing countries, a phenomenon known to be on the rise, is another factor that could be contributing to the spread of the illness.
Spain is not alone in facing increasing cases of syphilis. "Since 1996, syphilis has increased in many European countries. Cities like London, Dublin, Berlin, Paris and Rotterdam have shown significant increases," notes Kevin Fenton, the author of a study on the disease at the Centres for Disease Control in the United States.
[Copyright EL PAÍS / MÓNICA L. FERRADO 2008]