Syphilis in Dane County

Syphilis in Dane CountyI got an email alert last week about the increasing cases of syphilis in Dane county. In essence, there have been more cases of this sexually transmitted disease in the first 6 months of 2016 than there were in the entire 2015 calendar year. Not good.

Syphilis, once on the verge of elimination, has been making a comeback in a number of places. The biggest rise in syphilis has been in men who have sex with men (MSM), however it has been seen in other populations. In the late 90’s there was an outbreak in an affluent suburb of Atlanta (made into a PBS documentary called The Lost Children of Rockdale County, and later a Lifetime Original Movie called She’s Too Young, which coincidentally was on this past weekend). In this outbreak, over 200 high school and middle school students were exposed to and treated for syphilis. Many of these were teens 14 years and younger. This outbreak highlighted some of the sexual practices in teenagers, including group sex. Scary how cavalier some of these teens were when it came to sexual activity.

Syphilis definitely has a sketchy past. The infamous Tuskegee Study documented the effects of untreated syphilis. This was an unethical experiment where participants did not provide informed consent nor received adequate treatment. Similar experiments were conducted in Guatemala in the 1940s.

Syphilis is called “the great imitator” since its symptoms can mimic other diseases and the symptoms can come and go. About 10-90 days after exposure, a painless ulcer appears. Painless means that unless you actually see it, you may not know it’s there. This occurs at site of exposure (genitals, anus, mouth, etc).  Then, like magic, it disappears (usually 1-2 months later).  However, if you have not received treatment, you still have syphilis (and can still spread syphilis).  Then, 2-10 weeks later, any number of symptoms can appear – a generalized rash that may also appear on palms and soles, warty like growths in the genitals, patches of hair loss, and a flu-like illness.  Then, these symptoms go away.  However, if you have not received treatment, you still have syphilis (and can still spread syphilis). 10-30 years after exposure, untreated syphilis can go on to affect any organ in the body.

Syphilis can also be transmitted from mother to baby, called congenital syphilis. This can have serious complications to a fetus or newborn, including death. All pregnant women are tested for syphilis. Sadly, congenital syphilis is also on the rise.

The only way to avoid STDs like syphilis is to not have any intimate contact, including 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.

Syphilis is diagnosed through a simple blood test. This test can be done through your health care provider’s office or your local public health department.