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Study Finds High Prevalence of Syphilis in Men Who Have Sex With Men

Male couple

A recent study has shown an "unacceptably" high global prevalence of syphilis among men who have sex with men, according to the World Health Organization.

The international agency said the findings show the necessity of eliminating syphilis as a public health threat by 2030 — a previous WHO goal.

The study, “Prevalence of Syphilis Among Men Who Have Sex With Men: A Global Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis From 2000 to 2020,” was published in The Lancet Global Health and is the work of researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

It’s the first estimate of global syphilis prevalence among men who have sex with men, according to WHO.

While the study showed variations across regions, the global review found that men who have sex with men tended to have a higher chance of syphilis transmission. In fact, the prevalence of syphilis among men who have sex with men was 7.5 percent, while for the general population it is 0.5 percent.

Additional investigation found that more men had syphilis in locations that also had a high HIV prevalence.

Prevalence was found to be higher between 2015 and 2020 than the five years prior to that period.

WHO estimates that there were 7 million new syphilis cases in 2020. The organization had previously said that it would attempt to erase the sexually transmitted infection by 2030. Scaled-up interventions in some care have allowed a decrease in some types of syphilis.

Syphilis is a curable STI that is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. WHO is concerned about low- and middle-income countries whose structural barriers may prevent individuals from accessing health services that could provide a cure.

“This first review of global syphilis prevalence among men who have sex with men highlights the urgent need to improve access to syphilis testing, treatment, and prevention services," said Dr. Meg Doherty, director of WHO’s Department of Global HIV, Hepatitis, and STI Programs. "Stakeholders must address structural barriers, like discrimination and violence; improve sexuality education; and expand access and delivery of syphilis testing and immediate treatment for all populations at higher risk of infection.”

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