Syphilis rates double between 2018 and 2019

“This is the largest number of syphilis cases that we have ever had reported in one year.”

Alaska’s syphilis rates have more than doubled in the year since an outbreak was first declared in the state, according to a Thursday release from Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services.

From 2018 to 2019, the number of cases reported to the Alaska Section of Epidemiology jumped from 114 to 242, with most of the cases newly acquired and considered infectious.

“This is the largest number of syphilis cases that we have ever had reported in one year,” HIV/STD Program Manager Susan Jones said in the DHSS release.

The overall combined rates of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are at at all-time highs in both Alaska and the U.S. as a whole, and syphilis rates nationally have increased “almost every year since 2001,” according to the release.

“This is a reminder that as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, there are other outbreaks that need our attention,” Alaska’s Chief Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said in the release.

A bulletin released by Alaska’s Section of Epidemiology Thursday highlights several factors that may be driving the recent increase in cases. The majority of the 207 cases included in the study were male (65%), and just over half of those (52%) identified as men who have sex with women.

The age range of cases varied from 15 to 85 years old, while 61% of them were age 34 or younger.

About one-third (33%) of the patients reported either methamphetamine or heroin use, 28% had been incarcerated within 12 months of being interviewed and 24% were experiencing homelessness.

The bulletin notes that heterosexual men and women were the primary drivers of this recent increase, which raises the risk of congenital syphilis — when a newborn contracts the disease from the mother during childbirth — and underscores the importance of STD screenings at the initial prenatal visit, during the third trimester and at the time of delivery for those at-risk. Up to 40% of pregnancies with untreated syphilis will result in miscarriage, stillbirth or early infant death, according to the bulletin.

None of the 242 cases reported in 2019 were congenital syphilis cases.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread primarily through sexual contact. The disease typically starts as a painless sore that may not be noticed at first, and spreads from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact with these sores. The disease is easily curable and early treatment after exposure can prevent infection. When left untreated, however, syphilis can affect the heart, brain and other organs in the body.

Alaskans can reduce the risk of infection by using condoms, getting tested regularly, seeking prompt treatment and helping all sexual partners get tested and treated.

To find a location near you that provides STD testing, visit gettested.cdc.gov.

For more information about Alaska’s syphilis outbreak, visit std.dhss.alaska.gov.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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