In 2007 (2008 data not yet available), 11,466 cases of primary and secondary syphilis in the United States were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although treatment is available, the early symptoms of syphilis can be very mild, and many people do not seek treatment when they first become infected. Of increasing concern is the fact that syphilis increases the risk of transmitting and acquiring the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. The initial infection causes an ulcer at the site of infection; however, the bacteria moves throughout the body, damaging many organs over time. Medical experts describe the course of the disease by dividing it into four stages--primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary (late). An infected person who has not been treated could infect others during the first two stages, which usually last one to two years. In its late stages, untreated syphilis, although not contagious, can cause serious heart abnormalities, mental disorders, blindness, other neurologic problems, and death.
The bacterium spreads from the initial ulcer of an infected person to the skin or mucous membranes of the genital area, the mouth, or the anus of a sexual partner. It also can pass through broken skin on other parts of the body. The syphilis bacterium is very fragile, and the infection is almost always spread by sexual contact. In addition, a pregnant woman with syphilis can pass the bacterium to her unborn child, who could be born with serious mental and physical problems as a result of this infection. But the most common way to get syphilis is to have sex with someone who has an active infection.