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 U.S. syphilis surge infographic
Graphic shows rise of syphilis cases between 2000 and 2021.


Syphilis surge in U.S. as drugs run low

By Duncan Mil

July 28, 2023 - A scarcity of penicillin to treat a surging number of syphilis cases is so dire that U.S. health officials warn the epidemic of sexually transmitted infection will worsen.

The shortage of Pfizer’s penicillin G benzathine -- the preferred treatment for primary and secondary syphilis -- began in April.

Pfizer, the only company that makes prefilled syringes of penicillin for the United States, selling it under the brand name Bicillin L-A, says the treatment will be back in stock by the second quarter of 2024.

Doctors can turn to another antibiotic, doxycycline, but that’s less convenient for patients. Doxycycline is a pill given twice daily for at least two weeks, whereas penicillin G benzathine can sometimes clear the disease entirely with one injection.

“This is a remarkable shortage,” said Joseph Cherabie, who specializes in sexual health care at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Since 2000, syphilis has been surging, reaching 53,767 primary and secondary cases in 2021, an increase of nearly 800 per cent, data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show.

Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine leads the U.S. government’s response. She is recruiting experts to tackle the crisis, including officials at the CDC, and is considering declaring a public health emergency.

PUBLISHED: 28/07/2023; STORY: Graphic News; PICTURES: McKesson Corporation, NIAID