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Rapid increase in syphilis leads to joint public health action

Posted by db last modified February 04, 2009

City, county and state public health officials react quickly to a rapid increase in syphilis in Cuyahoga County in two populations at risk.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 - A nearly 3-fold increase in active syphilis rates in Cuyahoga County led public health officials to contact local media today to inform the public and local medical care professionals. Their report can be accessed at this link. 

(Link to Adobe .pdf summary report)

From July 2007 to March 2008, 52 residents were diagnosed with primary, secondary or early latent syphilis for an incidence rate of 5.1 per 100,000. An average of six cases per month were reported. In the previous 13 months (June 2006 to June 2007), only 26 cases were reported to health officials (rate 1.8 per 100,000), an average of two cases per month.

When public health officials met with local media today, Disease Intervention Specialists, state-trained agents that contact infected persons and their contacts, announced that four new cases were seen today alone at local health clinics.

City health officials stated that current annualized rates are approaching rates seen eleven years ago. In the late 1980s into the 1990s, syphilis was at epidemic levels in the county and state. Given this history, public health officials are reacting quickly to stem the increase in infection.

Two populations at risk

Surveillance data was obtained from the Ohio Department of Health was analyzed by the Cleveland Department of Public Health. Two populations were identified by risk behavior:

  • Men who have sex with men and bisexual men (MSM/Bi)
  • Heterosexual males and females, primarily African American.

Thirty of the 52 cases recently identified were MSM/Bi males, twenty were heterosexuals. 90% of all reported heterosexual males and females infected with infectious syphilis were African American.

Fact sheet available

Information on the risk of syphilis and recognizing symptoms can be found at the CDC site. A fact sheet is available on line.  Symptoms include a painless infectious open sore (chancre), an itchless rash on palms, chest or feet, fever, headache, flat, wart-like infectious patches (condyloma lata). Infeted but intreated women infected with syphilis put their fetus at great risk for neurological deficits, developmental problems, blindness and even death (stillborn). Congenital syphilis is a preventable cause of infant mortality and morbidity.

Hospital and local health officials put on notice

Cleveland Health Commissioner Karen Butler recently spoke to clinicians at the Cleveland Health Association informing them of an increase in syphilis in recent surveillance. The report released today includes symptoms and the clinical significance of syphilis. A memo designed for clinicians, local clinics and emergency departments is in the process of being drafted and circulated by the Cleveland Department of Public Health.

Action plan

Cleveland health officials are working with county and state officials to expand testing and investigation of new cases of syphilis. Persons at-risk, including those having unsafe sex, including unprotected oral sex or anal intercourse, are encouraged to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases (Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis) and HIV. Persons should go to local health centers, clinics or their physician for screening and, if needed, treatment.


Keywords: Birth Defects, County, Featured Item, Infant Mortality, Maternal Infant and Child Health, Municipal, Oral Health, Pregnancy, STD, Safe Sex, Statistics

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