You don’t talk about it with your friends. Probably not with your family, either.
But Virginia health officials have been talking about it. Optimistic about actually eliminating syphilis in 2003, they have watched cases in the state more than double in just three years. They’ve attacked this trend by launching a statewide public awareness campaign earlier this month.
Syphilis is a persistent, highly infections sexually transmitted disease (STD) with potentially devastating consequences. The culprit that causes it is spiral-shaped bacterium known as Treponema pallidum. These little guys can survive almost anywhere in the body and spread awfully fast.
Historians have speculated for hundreds of years that King Henry VIII, known for his 6 wives and 54-inch waist, suffered from syphilis and passed it to at least some of his royal offspring.
The disease actually goes through four distinct stages, each of which might last up to several years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, if untreated or not treated early enough, it can cause irreversible neurological and cardiovascular damage. Ironically, a single intramuscular injection of penicillin is the standard treatment for the first three stages. Tetracycline, doxycyline, minocycline, erythromycin, and ceftriaxone are alternatives for patients allergic to pencillin, though they might be slightly less effective.
While physicians also use the standard treatment for third- or late-stage syphilis, it cannot reverse damage already incurred. And even high doses of penicillin during the third stage might not affect bacteria living in the central nervous system.
The first signs of syphilis typically occur 2 to 10 weeks after exposure. A red, oval sore called a chanker develops at the point where the bacteria entered the body. While sites are typically located in the genital area, they can also form on the lips, hands, and eyes. According to the Urology Channel, an infected mother can pass the disease through the placenta to her unborn fetus. And after a cure, it’s possible to become reinfected.
The campaign launched by the Virginia Department of Health runs from May 7 through June 3, 2007. In addition to public service announcements, radio scripts, and posters in both English and Spanish, it includes a hotline at 1-800-533-4148. Some 125 buses transporting passengers through the Northern Virginia suburbs carry signs encouraging public testing. Announcements will air on local cable stations in June.
In 2004, the number of reported cases of syphilis in Virginia started increasing by percentages reaching double digits. In 2006, some 352 cases were reported, an increase of 31 percent over the prior year. During the first quarter of 2007, health officials witnessed a 39 percent jump from the same period in 2006.
According to The Washington Post, what’s going on in Virginia is similar to what’s happening in many other states and the District of Columbia. Although Washington, DC reported just 38 cases in 2000, its lowest number on the books, the number rose to 115 last year. The newspaper reports that the resurgence of cases of syphilis is linked in part to transmission among gay and bisexual males. While the District launched a public campaign to combat syphilis in 2003, The Post reports progress as elusive.
About two thirds of the Virginia patients who tested positive for syphilis in 2006 were African American. In Washington, DC, the statistics indicate almost even numbers for blacks and whites.
By contrast, Maryland statistics show a significant decrease in the number of reported cases. In 2005, the number was 313, a decrease from 380 in 2004. Baltimore city health commissioner Joshua Scharfstein attributes the sharp decline in local cases as due to outreach and “very aggressive” testing for syphilis and HIV.
Individuals who even suspect they have symptoms should contact a medical provider immediately since early treatment is so effective. As in the case of other STDs, partners must be notified so they can also be tested and treated if infected. And anyone infected should abstain from sexual activity until medical providers advise he or she is no longer contagious.