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Move Over Measles, A Syphilis Epidemic Is Brewing

February 16, 2019 by Michael Cheng
Roberto Rocha, supervising public health investigator, is one of the longest serving investigators Los Angeles Public Health. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Measles may not be the only medical outbreak individuals must cautiously avoid on the streets. Syphilis (Treponema pallidum), a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease (STD), is making a comeback across the US. Furthermore, a congenital form of the infection is currently targeting pregnant mothers and their newborns, prompting health officials to closely monitor new cases of the STD.

The number of reported cases are soaring, without a clear pattern of infection. In Kansas City, the area experienced a 71 percent increase of syphilis, which is in line with the national infection rate of 73 percent between 2013 and 2017 (according to data from NBC). Arizona reported a notable surge – a jump from 31 cases in 2017 to 53 in 2018. The states most affected by the STD include: Nevada, Louisiana and California.

“If we can’t get our hands around this, we may be close to declaring a public health emergency,” said Rex Archer, Director at Kansas City Health Department.

“The number of people that can be affected if we don’t stop the outbreak is substantial.”

Outside of the US, syphilis is also on the rise. Canadian health organizations are tracking the spread of the medical condition after unusual cases of congenital syphilis started emerging in 2018. Eastern Health, a leading health authority based in Newfoundland and Labrador, have issued several warnings about the trend.

The congenital form of the condition is considered to be the most devastating, as it is passed on from a pregnant mother carrying the STD to her unborn infant. Such infections can cause miscarriages and long-term developmental concerns in children. Regular prenatal care is highly effective in treating congenital syphilis, especially for pregnant women previously exposed to the spiral-shaped bacterium.

The mainstream form of syphilis can stem from both men and women (regardless of sexual orientation).

On a positive note, syphilis is treatable (though individuals can be infected more than once). After confirming the case, doctors typically prescribe powerful antibiotics to stop the infection. Initially, the medical condition is difficult to diagnose without proper screening. Symptoms of syphilis, including fatigue, muscle aches, fevers, open sores and rashes, are common ailments associated with a wide range of diseases.

If there are remedies available against the infection, why is it spreading? Public health officials suggest increased drug use and the ongoing opioid crisis are to blame. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pointed out that people who habitually use drugs are at higher risk of engaging in unsafe sexual practices.

“Two major public health issues are colliding,” highlighted Dr. Sarah Kidd, Medical Officer at CDC.

Another factor promoting the resurgence of syphilis is dwindling access to quality healthcare. As a solution, health organizations across the country are stepping up efforts by launching educational programs designed to boost awareness about the issue and encouraging at-risk individuals to get medically tested for the STD.

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