'We Are Bathing in Syphilis Right Now': Sweden Sees Spike in Disease Once Forgotten
The steep rise in syphilis, a disease nearly extinct in the Nordic country, is particularly rampant among homosexual men, which has been partly ascribed to the efficiency of therapy against HIV, which makes people less keen on using condoms.
As opposed to other common venereal diseases chlamydia and gonorrhoea which are in decline in Sweden, syphilis appears to have increased sharply in 2021, national broadcaster SVT
, emphasising that homosexual men have been hit particularly hard.
From being both a common and deadly disease, syphilis almost completely disappeared in the 1940s when penicillin appeared. But since the 1990s, there has been a steady increase.
The number of cases more than doubled between 2011 and 2020, and the Public Health Agency's preliminary figures point to a sharp increase in 2021.
"Syphilis can lead to serious injuries if not detected and treated", Public Health Agency epidemiologist Inga Velicko said, calling the development "very worrying". She emphasised that antibodies against syphilis remain for life, which makes detection more complicated.
Finn Filén, chief physician at the Venhälsan clinic at Stockholm's Södersjukhuset Hospital, which treats men and transgender people who have sex with men, warned this summer about a galloping spread of infection, and says that the problem remains.
"We have seen an increase ten years in a row now, and the curve points steeper and steeper. We are bathing in syphilis right now", Filén said.
According to Finn Filén, the fact that homosexual men have been hit hard has to do with the great strides made in the treatment of HIV. Those living with well-treated HIV today are more prone to having unprotected sex.
"People are basically not as scared, and are therefore not as good at using condoms as they were in the 90s when it was a matter of survival to avoid being infected with HIV and develop AIDS from which they died", Filén explained.
The infection is spread during unprotected intercourse and the condom is and remains the best protection. At the same time, syphilis is an insidious disease and sometimes develops without symptoms, which means that the infection is easily spread by unsuspecting carriers. Syphilis can lead to permanent damage to the nervous system and body organs after several years if it is not detected and treated.