Syphilis In The News

By | 2015-02-12T09:00:00-04:00 February 12th, 2015|Michigan, News|

In 2013, the CDC reported that U.S. cases of syphilis had increased 10 percent. Three quarters of those cases were among men who have sex with men (MSM) — which directly accounted for the significant increase in new cases of the old disease.
In two news items this week, syphilis is making headlines again.
In Columbus, Ohio, the health department has declared the region is fighting an outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease. How many cases have been identified is unclear from City of Columbus Health Department postings, but the agency has taken to social media to increase testing. In December of last year, the agency released several versions of social media https://columbus.gov/publichealth/media/Syphilis-Prevention/ messages for the public to use — including suggested Twitter language and social media placards specific to MSM communities and one specific to heterosexual communities.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, health officials are warning about a rare strain of the disease which is leaving those infected blinded. The Seattle Times reports the rare strain has been identified in six people in the region, two of whom have been blinded.
“The King County cases are all men, including three who report having sex with other men, the group most affected by syphilis in the region. Three are HIV-positive; people with HIV are often infected with syphilis, too,” the newspaper reports. “All of the patients reported problems including a loss of vision, blurring, having a blue tinge to their vision and seeing ‘floaters’ and flashing lights. Three of the patients were hospitalized to receive intravenous penicillin treatment; one patient refused care.”
No cases of ocular syphilis have been noted in Michigan, but syphilis remains an issue, particularly for MSM, MDCH says.
Jennifer Smith, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Community Health, says in 2013 there were 498 cases of primary and secondary syphilis identified in Michigan, and 347 of those cases were in MSM. Among the men who have sex with men, 178 were co-infected with HIV. Co-infection with HIV and syphilis increases the risk of transmission of the virus by 2.5 times, studies have determined. This is because the immune system launches a response at the location of the syphilis invasion, which in turn causes an opening in the skin. As a result, the syphilis infection location is a target for HIV to infect. As the immune system also floods the area with responsive immune cells when a person is infected with syphilis, it also increases the likelihood a person with HIV will shed the virus from the location, infecting their partner.
Transmission of syphilis can be prevented or reduced by using a condom — but because the disease is spread by skin to skin contact, it is possible to become infected with the bacteria, even while using a condom as the prophylactic only covers the penis. That’s because the disease sores can appear anywhere the disease has taken hold, and direct skin exposure can occur.

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