Syphilis cases on the rise in West Virginia

MORGANTOWN — Syphilis cases are on the rise in Morgantown, mostly among men who have sex with other men, the Monongalia County Health Department reports.

“In 2014, we averaged about three cases a year,” said Dr. Lee B. Smith, MCHD executive director and county health officer. “The number is now five times over that.”

And those are only cases reported to the state. He said there are likely more that go unreported, as people are treated by their primary care physicians or at urgent care facilities. Nationally, syphilis rates have risen 75 percent in four years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think that if we look specifically at Mon County, what we see is the incidence of syphilis is not related to intravenous (IV) drug use as it is in other areas of the state, but is related to men having sex with men who participate in high-risk behavior such as having frequent, anonymous sex,” Smith said.

While the cases tend to be among male homosexuals who are college age and 28-30, he added that it’s important to remember that officials are also seeing heterosexuals in the area with the disease and that lesbians can also contract it.

If left untreated, syphilis has three stages, with different signs and symptoms in each stage. It typically begins with a painless, open sore at the original site of infection, which may or may not be noticed by the infected person, that appears within 10 days to three weeks of an encounter.

If treated quickly, syphilis is curable with antibiotics. If not, secondary syphilis can include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes and fever. During the latent, or tertiary stage, there are no signs and symptoms, but the disease can damage internal organs and eventually lead to death.

“We offer free testing,” Smith said. “And we have an STD clinic several times a week. If you require treatment, we provide that as well. And we can test people for all of the common sexually transmitted diseases, as well as Hepatitis A, B and C and HIV.”

He said that precautions should be taken to avoid getting syphilis and other STDs. These include limiting and preferably knowing sexual partners, using condoms for every sexual encounter and getting tested. All sexually active people should be tested at least once; people who engage in high-risk behaviors should be tested at least every six months.

In the effort to educate the community about syphilis, the health department is working with area clubs to put up flyers alerting them to the outbreak, what to look for and how to avoid getting it.

A dating app has also agreed to post a message with a link that leads to more information on syphilis on MCHD’s website.

“They said they want to make that app as safe as it can be,” Smith said, though he did not disclose the name of the app.

He said the health department is trying the new, novel approach as part of its mission.

“We’re sworn to uphold the public health law of our state and our county and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Call 304-598-5119 to make an appointment at MCHD for a free STD test and/or treatment. Info: Visit monchd.org, follow the department on Facebook and Twitter @WVMCHD and on Instagram at WVMCHD.

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