Sounding the alarm: France sees explosion in syphilis cases

In the past few years, France has seen a steep rise in sexually transmitted infections, but there is one in particular that is rising at an alarming rate: syphilis. Experts are worried. Due to the ongoing fight against HIV, syphilis has long been relegated to a much less talked about second place in French public health policy. In the meantime, the number of syphilis cases has exploded, soaring by 110 percent between 2020 and 2022.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, Martin* received a piece of particularly bad news from a friend: “I’ve just been tested, and you’re the only person I have had unprotected sex with. Voilà, I have syphilis now.”

Martin rushed off to get tested: He tested positive. Once he had gotten over the shock, he quickly went through his list of sexual partners and remembered a recent encounter with a woman with whom he had not used protection. After a brief exchange, she confirmed she had syphilis and had been a carrier for some time. But just like Martin, she had preferred taking the risk rather than having protected sex.

Martin’s case is not unique. According to a report issued by the French health authority Santé Publique in December, sexually transmitted bacterial infections (namely, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, as opposed to HIV, which is a virus) rose sharply in mainland France between 2020 and 2022.

Although chlamydia remains the most recurring sexually transmitted infection (STI) in absolute terms, up 16 percent from 2020 with 102 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, experts are alarmed by the sharp rise in gonococcal infections, and especially the huge increase in syphilis. The number of gonococcal infections jumped by 91 percent (44 cases per 100,000 inhabitants) in the two-year period while syphilis soared 110 percent, to 21 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Syphilis first appeared in the Middle Ages and was nearly eliminated in the second half of the 20th century, but in recent years it has resurfaced in most Western countries, particularly in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, syphilis has now reached its highest infection rate since the 1950s, the New York Times reported in a January article.

With more than 207,000 cases diagnosed in 2022, the last year for which data is available, the US now has an infection rate of 17 cases per 100,000 inhabitants – an increase of 80 percent since 2018.

PrEP, a false sense of safety?

So why is this happening? Doctors say scientific advances, especially in the fight against HIV, are partly to blame. “People are protecting themselves less and less, in part because they’re no longer afraid of AIDS, since the scientific advances mean that it is now possible to lead an uncomplicated life even you have HIV,” Pierre Tattevin, the head of the infectious diseases department at Rennes University Hospital, explained.

According to most doctors, people “relax” when they don’t have to fear HIV anymore. “That’s the negative effect of using PrEP,” said Jean-Paul Stahl, infectiologist and emeritus professor of infectious diseases at Grenoble University.

PrEP, a pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a retroviral drug that is taken before any potential exposure to the HIV virus in order to help prevent contamination. It has become extremely popular in the past few years, especially among gay and bisexual men who are single. The pill is routinely offered in public hospitals to anyone reporting to have had sex with more than 10 different partners in the past 12 months, regardless of whether they have had protected sex or not.

“PrEP gives users the impression that they are protected from everything, and they think they can have all kinds of risky sexual relations, but it only protects them against HIV,” Stahl warned.

The danger of dating apps

But according to Pierre Tattevin, there is also another reason for the steep rise in STIs. “It’s become extremely easy to find sexual partners via dating apps. You multiply partners without knowing who they are, what their habits are, or what their [sexual] history is,” Stahl, who also presides the French Infectious Diseases Society (SPILF), said.

According to the December report by Santé Publique, the men most at risk of contracting gonorrhoea or syphilis, representing nearly 80% of cases, have multiple partners and a history of STIs.

More generally, it is men who are most affected: they account for 77 percent of gonococcal cases and more than 90 percent of syphilis cases. For the majority of syphilis cases, men aged 50 and over are most affected. 

Chlamydia, on the other hand, affects women more, especially young women aged between 15 and 25.

Great risk to pregnant women

The public fear of syphilis has diminished in the past half century or so thanks to a safe and very effective treatment for it: antibiotics. “It’s a cure, of course, and once it’s cured, there are no further effects or complications if the infection is detected quickly,” Stahl said.

Except that, if left untreated, syphilis is a very serious disease. It can damage the heart, brain and eyesight, and could go as far as to cause deafness and paralysis. An infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. Children who survive through birth may also suffer vision or hearing problems, and developmental delays.

While the number of syphilis cases only increased slightly among heterosexual women in 2021 and 2022, “around three quarters of syphilis cases involved MSM [men who have sex with men], regardless of the year surveyed”, the study said.

The researchers further warned that “STIs represent a major public health problem because of their transmissibility (to partners and mother and foetus), their frequency, the long-term complications they cause (chronic pelvic pain, upper genital infections, infertility, cancer, etc.) and their role in HIV transmissions”.

‘Can’t hand out condoms to everyone’

Doctors say that although the number of registered STI cases is on the rise in France, it is also a testament to the fact that the country has a well-functioning testing system, which is essential to stopping an epidemic.

“When you miss one case, you then end up with two more cases, and if you miss two cases, you then end up with four,” Dr Jay Varma, chief medical officer at Siga Technologies and a former deputy commissioner of health for New York City, said in an interview with the New York Times. “That’s how epidemics grow.”

Tattevin agreed. “Our different governments have pursued good policies in recent years, with free testing centres. We need to test even more, especially patients at risk,” he said.

In addition to information campaigns, Stahl insisted on  personal responsibility. “Those who use PrEP need to know what they’re risking. Because some know about the risks involved but decide to take them anyway,” he said. “Scientific information is always beneficial, but at the end of the day, the decision comes down to each and every individual.”

“The government can’t hand out condoms to everyone,” he said.

Martin, meanwhile, continues his conquests: sometimes protected, sometimes not, but for now, at least he is cured.

*The first name has been changed at the request of the person.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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Sextape scandal reveals the ‘double life’ of Iran’s ultra-conservative authorities

Social networks in Iran have been flooded with compromising footage featuring several known ultra-conservative officials engaging in homosexual activities. While homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, the Iranian regime has attempted to deny the videos and cover up the scandals. We spoke to a former religious authority who says authorities are trying to “save face” by refuting the wave of videos.

Homosexuality is illegal in Iran, and punishable by imprisonment, abuse, fines, or execution.

On July 18, a video showing Reza Seghati, the director general of the office of the Ministry of Culture in Gilan province in northern Iran, engaging in sexual activities emerged on Telegram on a channel called “Gilan News”. 

The footage shows him having intercourse with another man. It appears that Seghati is not aware of the camera’s presence in the room. 

Screengrab of a video showing Reza Seghati entering a room and engaging in sexual intercourse with another man © Observers

The offices of the Ministry of Culture in each province are responsible for issuing permits for any kind of cultural or artistic production. In reality, these offices are responsible for censoring these creations and ensuring they align with Islamic values and Sharia law.

Reza Seghati is known for being a hardline conservative and for his efforts to increase restrictions on women’s social freedoms, including tightening mandatory headscarf regulations. For instance, he spearheaded the “Neighbourhood hijab and virtue chastity” watchdog campaign in Gilan province to help enforce headscarf laws. 

The homosexual video of him triggered an outcry on Iranian social media, as people online accused him of hypocrisy. Although he has been called a “champion of Islamic values and the Islamic family” by Gilan province conservatives for his extremist beliefs, these videos allege that he is leading a double life.

“We should be careful not to label a homosexual relationship as a vice or any other label that the Islamic Republic attaches to homosexuals. We should not repeat their behaviour and condemn what happened. The problem here is not Seghati’s sexual relationship with another man, but the lies, hypocrisy and deception,” this tweet reads.

According to Iranian mediaSeghati was “replaced” as director general without any explanation. Seven other men were arrested in connection with this affair, but Seghati himself has not faced any legal action in the wake of the video’s publication.

The scandal has reached the highest echelons of the Islamic regime in Tehran. According to Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, it was mentioned in Iran’s National Security Council.

However, it appears that the regime is not prosecuting Seghati for his actions, but is actively seeking the person who recorded, leaked and shared these videos. Mojtaba Zolnouri, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of the Islamic Republic, said, “The crime of those who released these videos is greater than the fornicators’”. 

Reza Seghati has not commented on the video.

Several days after the video was released, the person behind the “Gilan News” channel on Telegram, who first posted these videos, claimed that he was threatened with death and that his family members were arrested in Iran for several hours.

But the headaches of the Islamic Republic regime did not end there. More sex tapes were on the way.

On July 21, videos of Mohammad Safari, a fundamentalist and member of the Anzali Municipal Council, also a town in the Gilan province, surfaced on social media. In the video, he is seen smoking opium and masturbating while looking at his mobile phone.

Mohammad Safari, the man in the white shirt smokes opium, then masturbates. France24 has decided not to publish this part of the video.
Mohammad Safari, the man in the white shirt smokes opium, then masturbates. France24 has decided not to publish this part of the video. © Observers

Read moreLeaked sextapes of Iranian politicians show ‘hypocrisy’ of Islamic Republic

Explicit video calls between two Mullahs

Then, hot on the heels of the previous scandals, an alleged explicit video call between two Mullahs (an honorific title for clergymen or a mosque leader) surfaced on social media on July 30.

One of these mollahs is said to be Mahdi Haghshenas, the former deputy of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Gilan Province, the other man in the video is allegedly his brother-in-law (the husband of his wife’s sister), also a Mullah. While many Iranian media outlets abroad have confirmed the authenticity of the videos, FRANCE 24 was unable to independently confirm this.

The Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Iran is one of the main agencies used by the Islamic regime in Tehran to impose Sharia law on the Iranian people. Haghshenas is known for his extreme views on Sharia law, his restrictions on social freedom, his hostility to science and his opposition to all vaccines.

Screengrabs of an explicit video call said to be between two mollahs, in which they mention multiple previous encounters they have already had.
Screengrabs of an explicit video call said to be between two mollahs, in which they mention multiple previous encounters they have already had. © Observers

‘The Islamic Republic tries to cover up these leaks to save the face of its religious structure’

Javad Akbarein is an Iranian intellectual living in Paris. He used to be a Mullah and studied at well-known religious schools in Iran’s Qom. He says these sex tapes are just the “tip of the iceberg”.

I think the current situation is the result of four decades of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policies. They have created a religious cult. They have endowed this cult with money, power and prerogatives and given it power throughout the country. It is normal that people who want to benefit from the exclusive privileges of this cult join it, even if their actual lifestyle contradicts the values of this cult and they have to lead a double life.

On the other hand, I can also say that most of them have never seen or touched a woman before marriage. Women are taboo, women mean sin to them. With this strong pressure on any kind of relationship with women – forbidding even the thought of women – relationships with other men are easier because there is no surveillance or pressure on male friendships.These relationships are rooted in the small friendship groups among these extremists who trust each other and believe that no one would find out.

And what we are now seeing in a series of videos is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t have statistics on sexual activity in the mosques or religious schools and it’s much harder for journalists or activists to investigate in countries like Iran or Iraq because these are dictatorships.

‘People are angry about this hypocrisy, not about the sexuality of these people’

I know these people, I studied for years in the religious schools in Qom in Iran, and I can confirm that every year there are many such cases in these religious schools, which are reported to the dean of the school. What they do is ignore it and hide it, sometimes one or both people involved are dismissed. However, if the police or anyone else finds out about this kind of sexual relationship, it means prison, torture and even possible execution, according to Sharia law.

Iranians are actually angry about this hypocrisy, not about the sexuality of these people. These people claim to be virtuous and holy. They have imposed the strict rules of Sharia on people; they have imposed the hijab on women. If Iran were not a theocracy and if they were not representatives of this religious dictatorship, we would not be talking about them, because it is a relationship between two consenting adults.

Therefore, the Islamic Republic tries to cover up or deny these leaks in order to save the face of its religious structure and its soldiers.

But I think the important point lies elsewhere. When a society is angry, it goes after the people who are responsible for its anger, who are the source of its hatred, that is, against the Mullahs and Islamists, using all the means at its disposal.

Iranians have nothing but mobile phones and social media at their disposal, and that is what is happening. People are using these tools to monitor and trap these people. And I’m sure this is just the beginning, more and more videos like this will be recorded and released.

This is not the first time that prominent representatives of the Islamic Republic have been implicated in sex scandals. In 2016, Saeed Toosi, an internationally known Quran reciter, was accused of raping underage male trainees.

Although numerous witnesses and victims turned to the media, Saeed Toosi was not convicted in court. He is known as the favourite reciter of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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The Flat Circle Of Republican Stupidity

Republicans long for a past that never was, and this inevitably leads them to sound like idiots as they twist themselves into pretzels trying to rationalize their calls for societal regression. Need examples? Let’s look at some in the Sunday shows!

We’re Not Book Burning, You’re the Book Burning!

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel was on “Fox News Sunday,” and while discussing the party’s post 2022 debrief report, she said a few things that were surprisingly truthful.

MCDANIEL: […] biggest takeaway we are taking is independents did not break our way, which has to happen if we’re going to win in 2024, which usually that’s what causes that red wave. And abortion was a big issue in key states like Michigan and Pennsylvanian. […] Republicans are migrating. They are migrating to red states. […] But it means the White House electorally isn’t available to us unless we go through a purple or blue state. And those states are getting bluer, because red voters are moving to the red states. […] the path to the White House runs not just through independents, but every single Republican getting on board.

It’s pretty shocking to hear anyone in the RNC, much less its chairperson, point out an objective reality. So what different actions or rhetoric do they plan to use to better their chances in 2024? Like, for example, abortion:

MCDANIEL: […] What abortion is a bad idea to Democrats? Ninth month, eighth month, seventh month? They can’t even articulate an abortion that’s a bad idea. Gender selection, if it’s a girl, you get to abort it. Tax-funded abortions for people where it’s against their religious conscience. […]

Nothing, then. They plan on changing nothing and expecting different results. If only there was a phrase for that.

Actually, correction, they do have another political strategy: The ole’ “we’re rubber, you’re glue”!

When asked about Republican attacks on trans people, which are politically unpopular, McDaniel attempted some very strained whataboutism.

MCDANIEL: […] the Democrats are using this word book banning. […] That’s a lie. There isn’t book banning. What Republicans are doing are protecting our children and parental rights […] But it’s good to know the Democrats playbook and we’re going to push on that, especially coming from the Democrat party that is banning freedom of speech, that is canceling people, that is destroying your life if you don’t think with their orthodoxy. This is the Democrat Party who is saying if you think outside of the box and everything, we are dictating to you, you will make you lose your job, we will destroy you.

Republicans have literally been fighting Disney because it dared exercised free speech, made book banning much easier, extended Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bigotry, and threatened to separate children from parents who are not bigoted toward their trans kids. But, sure, it’s the Democrats who are “destroying anyone who doesn’t conform to orthodoxy and taking their jobs while threatening to destroy them.”

Speaking of, how’s that dirt file on fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson?

Let’s Default Our National Debt!

House Republican Whip Tom Emmer appeared on CNN’s “State of The Union” and wouldn’t directly state that his party won’t force a default on the nation’s debt.

Host Dana Bash tried pointing out specifically how the cuts they want would hurt his constituents, but Emmer made it clear he will ignore them or just blame Nancy Pelosi when the reality doesn’t match his delusions.

GOP’s Vanity Tech Douche Candidate Returns

NBC’s “Meet The Press” had on Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Although considering his polling, calling him a candidate is a bit too generous, but nonetheless, we are all subjected to his stupidity on TV and expected to take him seriously. So fresh from giving Don Lemon his last good journalistic moment on CNN, Ramaswamy made Chuck Todd look like Walter Cronkite.

When Ramaswamy brings up an example of a person who says their gender doesn’t align with their biological sex, he seems to know the difference between sex and gender. But when Todd questions his stance on gender being binary, Ramaswamy then perhaps deliberately conflates biological sex with gender.

RAMASWAMY: Well, there’s, there’s two X chromosomes if you’re a woman. An X and a Y, that means you’re a man.

TODD: There’s a lot of scientific research out there –

RAMASWAMY: There’s a biological basis for this —

TODD: There’s a lot of scientific research out there that says gender is a spectrum.

RAMASWAMY: Chuck, I respectfully disagree.

Funny how these transphobic clowns want to bring biology into this UNTIL scientific research disputes their transphobia and then they fall back on what they “feel” or disagree just because.

Ramaswamy also equates abortion with murder but says it’s a “states’ right issue.” That’s not how “states’ rights” work, even if a Republican nominee barely polling above skim milk says so.

Asa Hutchinson’s Decimal Points

Speaking of polling, Asa Hutchinson announced he was running for president almost exactly a month ago. He appeared on CNN’s “State Of the Union” this week to call for going back to a Republican Party that died long before Trump came down an escalator in 2015. So how are Republican voters embracing this? We’ll let this picture summarize it.

Can this change for Hutchinson? Likely not when he is polling lower than the fictional Conor Roy in “Succession,” who we actually compared to Hutchinson too optimistically.

Phrasing, Steve Scalise!

When asked about any possible tension between himself and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on ABC’s “This Week,” Steve Scalise chose an odd way to describe their closeness yet trust.

Could be worse: Scalise could have kept misunderstanding what “raw dog” is.

Have a week

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