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Published: Sunday, 3/8/2009

Lucas County confronts rise in syphilis cases

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With 15 syphilis cases diagnosed in Lucas County so far this year - more than half as many as for all of 2007 - public health officials are sounding alarms about the sexually transmitted disease's rise both locally and elsewhere in Ohio.

Syphilis diagnoses in Lucas County started increasing in 2007 when a total of 26 cases were reported, up from 18 the year before. Last year, 35 syphilis cases were reported in Lucas County, the sixth-highest rate among counties statewide, according to Ohio Department of Health statistics.

No clear pattern has yet emerged of what Lucas County population is most affected by the recent increase in cases, officials said.

Most local syphilis patients are men, but some are women; most are age 25 to 45, although some teens have been infected. Sexual orientation also does not appear to be a determining factor, said Art Matten, disease intervention specialist for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.

"No one is immune," Mr. Matten said. "It's out there. We want to make sure people know it is out there."

Said Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner: "This is a significant rise in the numbers. We don't know why yet. We're still looking at the numbers."

Statewide, syphilis cases detected within the first year of infection started increasing in Columbus and Cleveland in late 2007 and surged early last year, said George Nowels, syphilis elimination project coordinator with the Ohio Department of Health.

In both cities, syphilis primarily has increased among homosexual men, African-American heterosexuals, and youth, said Paulette McClure, HIV prevention program manager at the state health department.

"There's always a level of concern for us around any increase in incidence of something like syphilis," she said.

So far this year, Mr. Matten said, the local disease information specialist, 12 syphilis cases were reported in Lucas County in January and three in February. Most were early cases, meaning they were detected within the first year.

"We got ours the beginning of this year," Mr. Matten said of the increase.

Wood County also has experienced an increase. Last year, when nine cases were reported, Wood County had the ninth-highest rate statewide at 7.2 per 100,000 people, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Seven of Wood County's syphilis cases and 26 of Lucas County's last year were early cases, said Mr. Matten, one of three disease intervention specialists working with 18 counties in northwest Ohio.

"The entire state is concerned at this point," Mr. Matten said. "We're trying our best to increase the information."

The disease is spread from person to person through direct contact with syphilis sores, which appear 10 days to 90 days after contact and last three weeks to six weeks. The disease is easily treated with antibiotics, the state's Ms. McClure said.

If left untreated, however, the disease can become deadly, even though symptoms disappear, Dr. Grossman said.

Late stages of syphilis can develop in about 15 percent of untreated syphilis patients. The disease can damage internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abstaining from sexual intercourse is the best way to prevent syphilis, followed by safe-sex practices such as using condoms and reducing the number of partners, public health officials said.

Among Ohio's nine largest cities, Akron in both 2007 and 2008 had the highest rate of syphilis cases, with a rate of 34.3 per 100,000 people last year. Toledo's rate was 9.7 per 100,000 people last year, up from 7.7 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to statistics from the Ohio Department of Health.

Only Youngstown and Lima had lower rates than Toledo among Ohio's nine largest cities in 2008, according to state statistics.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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