Easily curable syphilis proving fatal in country

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The syphilis epidemic has begun to take its toll in China, with the number of new infections increasing by 30 percent each year.

In May alone, the mainland reported more than 32,000 syphilis cases, including two deaths, making the sexually transmitted disease one of the top five infections in the country, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said.

The disease, which is actually easy to cure, was virtually eradicated in China in the 1960s, but remerged in the 1980s to record a tenfold increase in the number of cases over the past decade.

Chen Xiangsheng, deputy director of China's National Center for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Control, attributed the increase to the economic boom in the country.

A rapidly growing economy has resulted in large-scale migration and prostitution, even though the trade is illegal in China, he said.

According to latest figures, some 6 million women are involved in the flesh trade in China, said Hao Yang, deputy director of the MOH's disease prevention and control department.

In recent weeks, police in Beijing and Nanjing have raided local entertainment venues, mostly nightclubs and massage parlors, in a bid to crack down on prostitution, reports said.

Many believe the crack down on prostitution can help curb the epidemic, which spreads mainly by sexual intercourse.

But Jing Jun, a sociology professor with Tsinghua University, does not agree.

As long as prostitution cannot be completely eradicated or legalized, education is the best way to prevent and control the epidemic, he noted.

Regional crackdowns would force prostitutes to move around the country, thus making it harder to track and educate them about the importance of safe sex, experts said.

Unlike other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis can harm the victim's brain and eventually prove fatal if left untreated, they warned.

Many people who have syphilis seldom develop specific symptoms, so they never get the disease diagnosed, Hao said, adding that a shot of penicillin can cure the ailment.

The rate of mother-to-child transmission of syphilis jumped from 7 to 57 cases per 100,000 newborns between 2003 and 2008, according to official statistics.

The MOH is now working to include syphilis screening in routine medical check-ups for expectant mothers, together with tests for HIV and HBV, Hao revealed.

Dr Connie Osborne, a senior HIV adviser at WHO's China office, said routine screenings of pregnant women and early treatment of neonatal syphilis can prevent most, if not all, cases.

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