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Health officials worried about rapid rise in syphilis cases

The syphilis bacteria.

Central New York is experiencing a massive increase in the number of cases of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. While the overall number is low, health officials are worried about the trend.

From its near eradication nationwide at the turn of the 21st century, syphilis cases in Onondaga County doubled from 2012 to 2013. And then doubled again last year. They’ve risen 1,800 percent since 2008.

That only amounts to 56 total cases last year, up from three in 2008. 

"I think that really, this number is unfortunately a very small representation of what’s out there in the larger community," said Dr. Elizabeth Reddy, executive director of Onondaga County’s STD Center. 

Credit CDC
A rash on the back caused by syphilis.

County Health Commissioner Dr. Indu Gupta says that’s a startling spike. 

"We don’t expect any. We shouldn’t have any. And when you start to see this jump two years in a row, it feels like something needs to be done," she said. "Something isn’t right."

Syphilis largely is affecting men who have sex with other men, but Gupta is worried about it spreading to the larger male community and women. 

"If we don’t control that, we don’t try to address this problem at this point, what will happen next year? And those small percentages of females and heterosexuals will become larger and larger," she said.

The current cases span a diverse group, according to Dr. Reddy.

"Geographic, race, education, everything. So we’re seeing a whole spectrum from university-educated to people who have more limited education options and housing options," she said

While far less common than prevalent STDs such as Chlamydia or gonorrhea, syphilis can have much more severe symptoms. Syphilis begins with a painless chancre at the point of contact and can then show no symptoms before it causes severe nerve and neurological problems. It is curable with antibiotics.

Health experts attribute part of the rise in cases to the prevalence of online dating services and a lack of educational awareness. They are stressing for more education and screening among vulnerable populations.