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Syphilis cases surge past 6,000 for 1st time in 48 years; dating apps linked to rise

The Central Government Building No. 5 in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward that houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is seen in this file photo taken on Oct. 14, 2015. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Nearly 7,000 cases of syphilis were reported in Japan for 2018, exceeding 6,000 cases for the first time in almost half a century and increasing by almost 1,100 cases from the previous year, according to data released by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases here on Jan. 11.

The spread of the serious sexually transmitted disease is triggered by the growing use of dating apps on smartphones, according to experts.

The institute said the preliminary reports of syphilis infections for the last year stood at 6,923, topping the 6,000 mark for the first time in 48 years.

Syphilis was rampant in Japan until shortly after the end of World War II, but the total reported cases declined to several hundred annually until 2011, when a rebound began. The illness first causes a rash-like symptom, and leads to damage in the central nervous system in advanced stages. Fetuses infected during pregnancy can have serious symptoms such as loss of sight. Treponema pallidum, which causes the disease, can be killed by antibiotics such as penicillin in the early stages, but complications of the brain and the heart can occur later on. There is no effective vaccination. Condoms can be partially effective in preventing the infection.

Syphilis infections are particularly surging among women in their 20s, increasing 10-folds in three years. According to statistics from January through September 2018, female patients in this age bracket numbered 893, making up for nearly 20 percent of the total of 5,081, and 50 percent of some 1,730 women victims.

Among men, those in their 20s to 40s are susceptible to the infection. By area, major cities had higher numbers such as Tokyo with 1,284 and Osaka in western Japan with 874.

A main infection route is between employees and users of the sex industry. A survey of outpatients at medical facilities in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward by the local public health center indicated half of the people that had heterosexual syphilis were infected either through the use of sexual services in the past six months or work in the industry.

Other conduits for the outbreak, according to experts, include human interaction through meet-up apps or social networking services. Easy-to-operate dating software started to become popular around 2012, and is said to be promoting prostitution. In recent years, visitors to consultation services at public health centers began to reveal their use of such applications, according to health officials.

A study reported at the Japanese Society for Sexually Transmitted Infections in the fall of 2018 said that prefectures with high syphilis infection rates such as Tokyo, Osaka and Okayama in western Japan tend to have higher rates of dating app use. Yosuke Suzuki, a physician at Teikyo University Chiba Medical Center who conducted the research with others, warned that contact between male and female uses of dating apps could be serving as new infection routes. "Detailed surveys and countermeasures need to be implemented quickly," said Suzuki.

Starting this month, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare plans to conduct a detailed analysis of outbreak paths by asking doctors reporting syphilis infections if their patients had worked in the sex industry.

(Japanese original by Go Kumagai, Medical Welfare News Department)

Here is a list of websites offering information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in English:

*HIV testing and consultation website

-- Managed by health experts, this site offers information in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai and other languages about locations across Japan where you can receive tests to check on infections with the AIDS-causing HIV virus and consultations on the sexually transmitted disease.

*Shinjuku City in Tokyo

-- Offers telephone consultations on AIDS; HIV and STD testing; anonymous HIV and STD consultations free of charge:

*Osaka Information Service for Foreign Residents (OIS)

-- This section of the OIS website managed by the Osaka Foundation of International Exchange shows contact information for anonymous HIV tests free of charge:

*National Institute of Infectious Diseases

-- Provides data on major infectious diseases including STDs such as syphilis:

(Information current as of Jan. 11, 2019)

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