Syphilis is an infectious systemic disease that may be either congenital or acquired through sexual contact or contaminated needles.
Syphilis has both acute and chronic forms that produce a wide variety of symptoms affecting most of the body's organ systems. The range of symptoms makes it easy to confuse syphilis with less serious diseases and ignore its early signs. Acquired syphilis has four stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary) and can be spread by sexual contact during the first three of these four stages.
Syphilis, which is also called lues (from a Latin word meaning plague), has been a major public health problem since the sixteenth century. The disease was treated with mercury or other ineffective remedies until World War I, when effective treatments based on arsenic or bismuth were introduced. These were succeeded by antibiotics after World War II. At that time, the number of cases in the general population decreased, partly because of aggressive public health measures. This temporary decrease, combined with the greater amount of attention given to AIDS in recent years, leads some people to think that syphilis is no longer a serious problem. In actual fact, the number of cases of syphilis in the United States has risen since 1980. This increase affects both sexes, all races, all parts of the nation, and all age groups, including adults over 60. The number of women of childbearing age with syphilis is the highest that has been recorded since the 1940s. About 25, 000 cases of infectious syphilis in adults are reported annually in the United States. It is estimated, however, that 400, 000 people in the United States need treatment for syphilis every year, and that the annual worldwide total is 50 million persons.
The increased incidence of syphilis in recent years is associated with drug abuse as well as changes in sexual behavior. The connections between drug abuse and syphilis include needle sharing and exchanging sex for drugs. In addition, people using drugs are more likely to engage in risky sexual practices. With respect to changing patterns of conduct, a sharp increase in the number of people having sex with multiple partners makes it more difficult for public health doctors to trace the contacts of infected persons. High-risk groups for syphilis include: