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A Times Editorial

Short-sighted on syphilis

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000


For a fraction of the $214-million the federal government spends every year treating syphilis, Congress could have taken an important step toward eradicating the syphilis bacterium in the United States. But it has decided to pass. Now health experts are warning that the infection, currently at its lowest levels in national history, is likely to reach epidemic proportions again. Congress' short-sighted failure will cost the country many times over in the years to come.

Because physical symptoms are minor at first, syphilis often goes untreated and is easily passed on to others through sexual contact. The disease can lead to blindness and severe dementia. It also leaves sufferers up to five times more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Syphilis is treatable with penicillin in its early stages, but the nature of the ailment makes education imperative. The $15-million requested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (a drop in the bucket by Washington standards) would have gone to such efforts, particularly in impoverished areas where the epidemic is most acute.

With the incidence of syphilis at the ebb of a cycle that will begin to reverse in coming years if nothing is done, the CDC saw a one-time chance to make a targeted effort to wipe it out. Yet Congress squandered this opportunity to address a major threat to public health.

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