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Syphilis Might Be the Next Scary STD Superbug

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You've definitely heard of superbugs by now. They sound like a scary, sci-fi thing that will come to get us in the year 3000, but, actually, they're happening right here, right now. (Before you freak out—here are a few ways to help protect yourself from superbugs.) Example A: Gonorrhea, an STD usually knocked out by antibiotics, is now resistant to all but one class of drugs, and is close to being untreatable. (More here: Super Gonorrhea Is a Real Thing.)

Then there's the latest news: Most of the current strains of syphilis, an age-old infectious disease that continues to re-emerge worldwide, are resistant to the second-choice antibiotic azithromycin, according to a study by the University of Zurich. So if you contract this type of syphilis and can't be treated with the first choice drug, penicillin (like if you're allergic), then the next drug in line might no longer work. Yikes.

Syphilis (a common STD) has been around for more than 500 years. But when treatment with the antibiotic penicillin became available in the mid-1900s, infection rates decreased dramatically, according to the study. Fast forward to the last few decades, and one strain of the infection is making a resurgence—so much, in fact, that the rate of syphilis in women increased by more than 27 percent in the last year, as we recently reported in STD Rates Are at an All-Time High. Double yikes.

Researchers from the University of Zurich wanted to find out what exactly is going on with this superbug STD. They collected 70 clinical and laboratory samples of syphilis, yaws, and bejel infections from 13 countries spread across the globe. (P.S. Yaws and bejel are infections transmitted by skin contact with similar signs and symptoms to syphilis, caused by closely related bacteria.) They were able to construct a sort of syphilis family tree, and found that 1) a new worldwide strain of the infection has emerged that originated from a strain ancestor in the mid-1900s (after penicillin came into play), and 2) this particular strain has a high resistance to azithromycin, a second-line drug that is widely used to treat STIs.

Penicillin, the first-choice drug to treat syphilis, is one of the most frequently used types of antibiotics in the world—but about 10 percent of patients are allergic or hypersensitive to it. Luckily, many people lose their allergy over time, according to the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology, but that still puts a large chunk of people at risk for becoming infected with syphilis and not being able to be treated. That's especially worrisome because, if left untreated for 10 to 30 years, syphilis can cause paralysis, numbness, blindness, dementia, damage to internal organs, and even death, according to the CDC.

This all might still sound a little far-off, but STIs treated with antibiotics (chlamydia, gonorrhea, and, of course, syphilis) are already becoming harder to treat. That's why it's more important than ever to practice safe sex. (This STD risk calculator is also a HUGE wake-up call.) So use a condom the right way every time, be honest with your partners, and get tested on the reg—no excuses.

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