Syphilis On The Rise In Richmond
Syphilis is on the rise nationwide and it’s largely hitting men who have sex with men (MSM). That national trend mirrors a rise in cases locally.
The outbreak has reached a peak and is raising the eyebrows of community health leaders who have formed a task force to tackle the issue head on (including members of the LGBT community & GayRVA.com for full disclosure).
Although the Virginia Department of Health does not have reporting available on specific populations hit locally, in 2009 nationwide, MSM accounted for almost 2,000 primary-stage Syphilis cases while their MSW (men who have sex with women) counterparts accounted for less than half of that. MSM cases reported in the secondary stage were over 5,000.
As of the first half of December, Richmond city proper had 94 reported cases up from 64 at 2009, year-end.
That data is collected from primary interviews with patients and then reported to the Centers for Disease Control.
“One of the pieces of information we solicit is gender of sexual partner,” said Dr. Danny Avula, Deputy Director of the Richmond City Health District. ”Our case workers then submit their reports to the state office, and state data is aggregated and sent to the CDC.”
According to Avula, Syphilis numbers have been on the rise in the south over the past five years. Why are the cases reaching a peak? He says it could be a number of factors including not getting tested or using protection.
“People are transmitting the infection before they necessarily know they have it. In the early stages, that primary sore doesn’t hurt or bother anyone, so they don’t think to get tested and may not change their sexual behavior at all.”
To curb the spread of the disease, the task force is looking to raise awareness about testing through continued outreach into nightlife venues and on college campuses. It’s the national CDC data that signals these local outreach efforts into the MSM community.
Avula says trends show the disease spreading through the MSM population, followed by a spread into the female population which can lead to congenital syphilis in infants.
“That’s where it can have the most devestating effect when it’s being transmitted to babies – blindless, mental retardation, and death even that can occur,” he says. ”To be frank, that’s what commands the public’s attention more than anyone else.”
Syphilis is treatable through a one-time injection of penicillin followed by a series of oral antibiotics in later cases.
The task force looks to continue the conversation and help the VDH and its partner agencies come up with effective interventions to reach at-risk communities.
Historically, Avula says health departments haven’t been the most supportive or accessible to the gay community and have had difficulty reaching the MSM population because of much of its underground nature – some MSMs do not self-identify as gay.
“We need to pull together folks in the community to see why we are seeing this increase and what we can do about it,” he says.
Image courtesy CDC.
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