The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a report that despite steady declines in syphilis rates among African Americans, women and babies between 1999 and 2004, overall numbers continued to rise driven by a dramatic jump in infections among gay and bisexual men.

Nearly two-thirds of all the new syphilis cases in 2004 were in men who had engaged in homosexual activity, according to the CDC. That same group made up just 5% of new infections in 1999, the report said.

“Increases in gay and bisexual men are overshadowing the decreases,” Doctor Kevin Fenton, director of the CDC’s National Centre for HIV, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Prevention, said at a national conference on sexually transmitted diseases in Florida.

Officials were encouraged by the drop among African Americans, the racial group with the highest rate of syphilis, from 14.3 to nine cases per 100,000 from 1999 to 2004. The CDC also reported that rates among women fell from two to 0.8 cases per 100,000 and rates among newborns fell from 14.5 to 8.8 per 100,000 live births.

CDC officials credited better education with the drop among African Americans and women. Fewer cases of syphilis in women resulted in fewer babies being born with the disease, they said.

The increase in infections among gay and bisexual men is partly a product of the effectiveness of HIV drugs, said Doctor John Douglas, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention.

He said the fear of risky sexual behaviours that stemmed out of the heyday of HIV/AIDS has faded considerable. The effectiveness and availability of drug cocktails has led many gay men to think of HIV and AIDS as a chronic but manageable disease, he said.

As a result, many men do not take proper precautions, such as wearing a condom, he said.

To try to stem new infections, the CDC plans to work more closely with local health departments and community groups in the gay community.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate that if we focus our efforts and mobilize public health practices, we’ve made substantial gains in reducing syphilis,” Fenton said. “Now is the time to apply some of those successes to the [gay and bisexual male] population.”

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