Health Officials Warn Syphilis Cases Growing in Texas

cover9Black Community in Crosshairs & Faces Grim Statistics

By Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues

Houston - Texas ranks among the five top states facing higher rates of syphilis in the United States, according to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Syphilis a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It has often been called “the great imitator” because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases.

The rate of syphilis infection for the whole United States and its regional territories began rising for the first time in a decade after steadily declining every year since 1990.

In the United States, health officials reported 49,903 cases of syphilis in 2012, including 15,667 cases of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis. The incidence of P&S syphilis was highest in women 20 to 24 years of age and in men 20 to 24 years of age.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2012 report, Texas is reporting 6.3 infections per 100,000 people.

Of those Texas counties, Harris County leads the state having the greatest and fastest growing number of syphilis cases per 100,000 population.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services HIV/STD reports, in 2005, there were 257 syphilis cases at a 7-percent rate. That number has climbed steadily since to a whopping 496 cases in 2012 and an alarming 11.7-percent rate, almost twice the national average.

Contained within the statistics are the grim impacts on the African-American health.

The overall 2010 rate for blacks was eight times the rate for Whites, while the 2009 rate was 9.2 times the rate for Whites. In 2010, the rate of P&S syphilis among Blackmen was 7.1 times the rate among White men; the rate among Blackwomen was 21 times the rate among White women. In the same report, 47.4% of all cases reported to CDC were among blacks and 31.0% of all cases were among Whites.

In response to alarming rates found nationwide, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is taking a stand to raise awareness about the prevalence of this disease, its drastic medical impacts, and the simple – and only – way to completely avoid infection: condom use and routine STD testing.

“There is no pill to prevent syphilis, or gonorrhea or any other sexually transmitted infection besides HIV,” said Michael Weinstein, President of AHF. “These infections spread easily and can be detrimental to public health if they are not mitigated by responsible health practices like regular condom use … Our goal with this campaign is that people will be driven to contribute to decreasing these rates by preventing transmission in their own lives, and also to remind people that syphilis is a serious health risk that they need to be tested for to catch it before it causes significant damage to their organs.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is the largest non-profit HIV/AIDS healthcare provider in the USA. AHF currently provides medical care and/or services to over 319,000 individuals in 34 countries worldwide in the US, Africa, Latin America/Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Asia.

“At Dallas County Health and Human Services, disease intervention services include one-on-one education and counseling, confidential notifications, prevention counseling and public educational presentations,” said Erikka Neroes, spokesperson for DCHHS. “Once a client has been diagnosed with an STD, DCHHS’ Disease Intervention staff educates and interviews clients about their exposure. The staff also provides confidential partner notifications and referrals to DCHHS services.” 

Dallas County’s which leads the state in HIV cases, also has seen syphilis cases fluctuate. Since 2005, case have gone from 173 to as high as 293 cases and a 12.5-percent rate. Data shows the county reported 188 cases in 2012 and that now is rising again.

Neroes said counseling concerning transmission and prevention of STDs is provided to reduce the likelihood of clients acquiring future STD infections. The disease Intervention staff is available upon request to educate the public with presentations that include information regarding risk reduction techniques, available community STD services, printed materials on the most common STDs and how to access services, she said.

Bexar County has seen a steady climb in cases from a mere 127 at an 8.3-percent rate in 2005 to more than double that amount in 2012 at 308 cases and a 17.2-percent rate.

In Travis County, the number of cases went from a measly 37 cases in 2005 to 132 cases and a 12-percent rate in 2012.

Other states also with high rates on the disease include New York at 6.3 infections per 100,000 people; Louisiana has a statewide rate of 7.4, in addition to carrying the nation’s highest burden of congenital syphilis with 49.3 cases diagnosed per 100,000 live births in 2012, nearly seven times the national rate of 7.8 that year; Mississippi, where the statewide rate is 5.9 per 100,000 population and where more than half of the primary and secondary syphilis cases in 2012 affected young people between the ages of 15-24; and finally Ohio, recording a rate of 3.7 per 100,000.

According to health officials, one of the main issues is getting people to understand the seriousness of the disease and to take precautions to protect themselves.

Between 2001 and 2009, the rate steadily climbed from 2.1 to 4.6 infections per 100,000 people before finally showing its first decrease in 2010 when it dropped to 4.5. The national rate held steady at 4.5 in 2011, but the CDC’s most recent data shows that in 2012 the national syphilis rate again began to rise with a jump back to 4.6.

Syphilis is an STD that can cause long-term complications if not treated correctly. Symptoms in adults are divided into stages. These stages are primary, secondary, latent, and late syphilis.

How is syphilis spread?

You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sores can be found on the penis, vagina, anus, in the rectum, or on the lips and in the mouth. Syphilis can also be spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby.

In 2010, the rate of congenital syphilis was 33.1 cases per 100,000 live births among blacks. Race/ethnicity for cases of congenital syphilis is based on the mother’s race/ethnicity. This rates was 12.3 times the rate among Whites (2.7 cases per 100,000 live births).

What does syphilis look like?

Syphilis has been called ‘the great imitator’ because it has so many possible symptoms, many of which look like symptoms from other diseases. The painless syphilis sore that you would get after you are first infected can be confused for an ingrown hair, zipper cut, or other seemingly harmless bump. The non-itchy body rash that develops during the second stage of syphilis can show up on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet, all over your body, or in just a few places. You could also be infected with syphilis and have very mild symptoms or none at all.

How can I reduce my risk of getting syphilis?

The only way to avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

If you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting syphilis:

Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results;

Using latex condoms the right way every time you have sex. Condoms prevent transmission of syphilis by preventing contact with a sore.

Sometimes sores occur in areas not covered by a condom. Contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.

“We are able to offer affordable testing and treatment for this needlessly devastating disease in six of the top ten most impacted states in the nation,” said Albert Ruiz, AHF’s Director of Wellness Center Programs. “We sincerely hope that once people realize how prominently syphilis is still impacting the lives of men, women, and children throughout the country, they will all be motivated to remain more aware of how their actions can either help prevent – or spread – a terrible infection that is en route to becoming a major public health crisis if we don’t turn the tides.”

For more information about syphilis, visit www.aidshealth.org or http://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/default.htm.

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