We Focused So Much on HIV, We Forgot About Syphilis

Why it’s on the rise, and what you need to know to protect yourself

Andrea King Collier
Published in
4 min readDec 3, 2019


Photo: FatCamera/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other experts have hammered home the high risks of HIV infection for Black women for many years now. And just as we are getting the message, there appears to be another risk to our health — rising and disproportionate rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia.

The latest statistics suggest that not only are the rates of these sexually transmitted diseases and infections on the rise overall, but there is a growing disparity that specifically impacts Black women. According to the latest CDC report, Black females had rates of syphilis that are nearly 5% higher than White females. Black women have a rate of gonorrhea that is nearly 7% higher, and chlamydia rates for Black females are five times higher than their White counterparts.

“The truth is that people don’t use condoms as much as you might think they do.”

But how did we get here, and what do we do now?

It’s very possible that understanding our current rates lies within basic well-woman care. Doctors report that the implementation of routine STD tests at a pregnant woman’s monthly appointments are a lifesaver. However, experts caution, there is still a reason to be concerned about HIV and STD/STI education because the commonly held belief that condom usage stops all sexually transmitted diseases simply isn’t true — especially when accounting for user error.

“The truth is that people don’t use condoms as much as you might think they do,” says David Malebranche, MD, associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine. He adds that many of these diseases are transmitted differently. There is no one size fits all. Also, he says, many common STIs are orally transmitted and go undetected because they may not have symptoms.

“The recently released reports point to a serious deficiency when it comes to how we talk about, prevent, and treat both HIV and STDs,” says Valerie Rochester, vice president of program strategy at AIDS United, who adds that both HIV and a number of STIs are “very preventable” health conditions.