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Listen to Dr. Levine: Take syphilis seriously

Listen to Dr. Levine: Take syphilis seriously

Dr. Rachel Levine, the transgender Assistant Secretary for Health, has a warning everyone in our community should heed.

When Dr. Rachel Levine, a pediatrician who oversaw Pennsylvania’s health system, was nominated and approved to be the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the LGBTQ+ community and allies erupted in celebration and support. As a trans woman with significant influence over America’s health care, Dr. Levine survived a GOP lawmaker onslaught of dissension on her nomination. Regardless, Dr. Levine prevailed, and the community gained another notch of pride with one of the foremost medical experts of our time taking a senior role at one of the most crucial times in our health system.

And the pride was well-founded in this amazing public servant who now also chairs the National Syphilis and Congenital Syphilis Syndemic (NSCSS) Federal Task Force. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Levine at the White House last June for the president and Dr. Biden’s Pride celebration. I found her very engaged, educated, and proactive on health issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community. Her focus on the growing sexual health realities of LGBTQ+ people and other Americans, including trans health issues, mental health struggles, suicides, STIs, and HIV was impressive and heartening coming from a government official. Her passion and commitment to progress was evident, and all of America can truly take pride in an outstanding example of the best of our community representing all of us in government.

Now, nearly three years later, it’s time for the LGBTQ+ community to transition from pride to support by listening and leading with action to Dr. Levine’s recent blunt messages that sexually transmitted diseases, specifically syphilis, are rising to historic levels and it’s up to each of us to stop spread. Data released in January from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and further reinforced by Dr. Levine’s guidance, shows a sharp uptick in the number of syphilis cases, with a 17 percent rise over the previous year’s number. With 2.5 million STD cases reported to the CDC in 2022, it’s likely a huge undercount given lack of knowledge, contract tracing, testing, treatments, and stigmatization of STIs, especially among LGBTQ+ people.

According to an HHS release, “(Syphilis) cases in nearly every demographic group and region increased, as did disparities in the burden of disease among certain racial and ethnic populations.” So now I appeal to the LGBTQ+ community to take collective action and lead by following Dr. Levine’s good guidance. The best path forward to protect each other from spreading STIs starts with each one of us.

Collective action is not new to the LGBTQ+ community, evidenced when we faced other sexual disease threats, such as taking PrEP in record numbers to prevent HIV and getting inoculated in mass numbers to drive down the mpox outbreak of 2022. Incongruous to this great progress against HIV, many of us have collectively relaxed our use of condoms, dental dams, and the like, which have driven the rise in other STIs with growing mutations that can become resistant to antibiotics and other treatments.

Dr. Levine continually advises that we need to make testing a regular part of our self-care. If you are sexually active and getting tested every three months as part of your PrEP treatment, make sure your doctors are screening for all other STIs. In the meantime, if you ever fear you've been exposed, it is the time to cease sexual activity with others temporarily, get tested and, if positive, take prescribed treatment before resuming normal sexual activity. Most importantly, if you ever test positive for syphilis or other diseases, it’s time to rise above the stigma and participate in contract tracing with recent sexual partners to help alert and encourage testing and treatment.

The LGBTQ+ community can help lead all other Americans on collective action to stop the spread of syphilis and other STIs. To show full pride in Dr. Levine’s appointment at HHS is to respect her guidance to stay healthy, get tested regularly, take the treatments as prescribed, and participate in contact tracing to the stop the spread. It’s increasingly up to all of us, and as proven in the recent past, the LGBTQ+ community is expert in exerting collective action to protect each other far beyond any assistance of our government.

Michael D. Kelleyis a cofounder and a principal LGBTQ+ shareholder ofequalpride, publisher of The Advocate. His opinion pieces representhis own viewpoints and not necessarily those ofequalpride or its affiliates, partners, or management.

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