While gonorrhea cases have fallen for the first time in a decade in the United States, syphilis is up by 9%. In Island County from 2017 to 2021, it’s up 137%.
According to the Washington State Department of Health, these numbers are consistent with state trends. Washington as a whole has seen cases increase by 137% from 2018-2022. Women have seen a 57% increase from 2021 to 2022. Heterosexual couples have also seen an increase in syphilis cases. Health disparities for homosexual men, people living with HIV and people of color persist.
Syphilis is a bacterial disease that can cause serious health problems and even death without treatment. Infection develops in stages, and each stage can have different signs and symptoms which may include painful genital sores, paralysis, hearing loss, dementia and others.
“This is particularly concerning for women of childbearing age, as untreated syphilis can have devastating effects on a developing fetus,” said Island County Public Health Manager Megan Works. “However, our case counts are still low compared to other parts of the state.”
Case numbers are so low that sharing exact data causes confidentiality concerns, said Island County Public Health Director Shawn Morris. Nonetheless, the department is working to reduce the trend through case surveillance, investigation, preventative care and partnerships with health care providers.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted STI prevention services and delayed care, which may have contributed to the recent increase in cases, Works said.
The rise in cases in heterosexual men may be due to a lack of looking and testing for it. For all demographics and especially heterosexual men, Works recommends discussing risk factors, signs and symptoms and testing options with primary care providers. For people without health care providers, the Department of Health provides telehealth services and information online.
Island County Public Health has worked with the Department of Health to identify cases and ensure their clients receive appropriate and timely treatment, Works said. They also reach out to individuals who may have been exposed to make sure they get tested and treated as needed.
Additionally, work continues in the form of outreach to medical providers updating them on proper screening, testing and treatment, Works said.
Island County Public Health encourages anyone who possibly has a sexually related illness to be tested not only for chlamydia and gonorrhea but for syphilis and HIV as well. Pregnant women should be tested at the beginning of their pregnancy and again before delivery.
Syphilis is fully preventable through safe sexual practices such as abstinence, condom use, vetting of sexual partners and mutual monogamy and can be easily treated with antibiotics, Works said.
Island County residents are encouraged to reach out with questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-679-7350.