Blade Omits Hard Gay Syphilis Numbers
Call me old-fashioned, but I'm the kind of activist who likes hard numbers behind scary stories in the gay press that raise concerns about alleged increases in any sexually transmitted disease among gay men. An alarming story in today's Washington Blade is rather lazy about answering a few questions, like, what are the actual numbers behind the percentages and did increased testing or surveillance play a role in the rising infection rate of syphilis for gays?
From the Blade:
A dramatic rise in the number of documented syphilis cases among gay men is prompting federal health officials to revamp national prevention programs to specifically target the demographic.
And what might that actual number be? The Blade doesn't say, but it does provide these percentages:
But from 1999 to 2004, the overall rate of documented syphilis cases in men who have sex with men (MSM) had increased by 68 percent. A separate study indicated that MSM made up 64 percent of all cases of the disease in the United States in 2004, up from only 5 percent in 1999.
Well, does that 68 percent increase mean there were 100 new cases? Maybe there were 1,000 or 100,000 new infections? The Blade is so coy about giving readers an actual number behind any of the percentages mentioned, which, in my opinion, is very shoddy reporting.
Go to this link at the CDC's STD Conference site to see two graphs about syphilis. You'll see that there does indeed appear to be a marginal rise, but the over all rate is not anywhere near the high peaks of 1990. Also, the CDC link does not provide hard numbers.
I'm not saying there hasn't been an increased in gay syphilis, but I sure would like hard, actual figures and not just the alarming percentages. Actually, at least the Blade reports percentages for gay syphilis, which is more than the paper does at the end of the story when it writes about LGV:
Other research presented at the conference highlighted the growing threat of lesser-known sexually transmitted diseases, which are appearing more frequently among sexually active people of all sexual orientations within the U.S.
Lymphogranuloma venereum, long found outside the U.S., has emerged as a new STD threat. Caused by a particular strain of Chlamydia bacteria, LGV cases in the U.S.—still relatively few—are most often found in men who have participated in receptive anal intercourse.
Why bother with any percentages or hard numbers when reporting on a growing threat? The important thing is raise readers' fears about the emerging infection, right? Sure, LGV may be spreading in the gay community, and that should be reason enough for the Blade to report some numbers on how many cases of this infection have been documented.
Finally, I raise the possibility of increased testing for syphilis as a factor that may be contributing to the reported rise in cases, because here in San Francisco, the health department in the December 2005 monthly STD report noted how more testing for gay rectal infections were probably due to more infections being detected:
Between 2004 and 2005, reported rectal infections increased 9% for rectal chlamydia and 11% for rectal gonorrhea. These increases might be the result of increased rectal screening at Magnet, the gay men's health center.
Of course, we should always be concerned about STDs, whether they're up, down or stable. However, it's also important that health officials and newspapers give as much statistical information as possible when sounding an alarm about alleged increases.