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Number of syphilis cases rises dramatically in central NY

Ellen Abbott

The number of syphilis cases has increased dramatically in recent years in central New York.  

It used to be that when there was an outbreak of syphilis in New York state, the state Department of Health would find people infected in a particular school or neighborhood.

"But now the social networks are different. People meet though the Internet. If they’re looking for sexual partners, and if they throw that net wide enough, they’re going to find them,” said Dan Casler, the head of the state health department’s communicable disease program.

Casler believes the anonymity and increasing number of these sexual encounters is a big reason the number of new syphilis cases in the central New York region has jumped from 8 in 2000 to 110 last year.  

But the rise in the number of apps and web sites that facilitate sexual encounters is not the only reason syphilis cases have gone up, says Erin Bortel of ACR Health in Syracuse.

“There are other social factors at play here, particularly the opioid epidemic, and how drug use behaviors relate to sexual practices and decision making. Period,” said Bortel.

Add to that the loss of urgency about practicing safe sx, now that HIV/AIDS is a more manageable disease, and there’s a perfect storm that’s allowed the sexually transmitted disease to thrive.  

Casler says most of the cases in this epidemic involve men having sex with men, but because of the Internet connection, the cases are not limited to urban areas, but have spread to more rural parts of central New York as well. Casler says one way the state is trying to fight this, is by going online, too.

“The person infected with syphilis would give us the information about how to contact that person on that particular site, then we reach out to that person on social media and engage in a discussion online, and then refer them to an area where they can get care,” said Casler.

ACR Health is also hoping to make an impact by expanding their STD testing program to include rapid syphilis tests, says Bortel.

"This offers an immediate screening device, and they can get results in 10 minutes if they have antibodies in their blood that are positive for syphilis,” she said.

The rapid tests just involve a finger prick, whereas a diagnosis used to involve a more extensive blood draw at a clinic. Bortel says the rapid tests allow ACR to go anywhere in their nine-county service area, to reach people that might not normally go to a doctor or clinic. ACR Health also offers these rapid tests for HIV and hepatitis C.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.