A national increase in syphilis cases continues to impact Montana and public health officials are concerned.
According to a press release from the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, during the first two months of 2018, nine new syphilis cases were reported in Montana, continuing the 2017 outbreak experienced when 49 cases were reported.
The increase in cases is alarming, according to DPHHS, when compared to the average of 12 cases per year reported from 2014-2016.
While cases in past years occurred primarily among men who have sex with men, 4 out of 9 of the 2018 cases are women. The increase of cases among women is a concern because the infection can be easily passed to an unborn child, resulting in serious complications or death of the baby. Yellowstone County reported 2/3 of this year’s cases with others identified in Cascade, Gallatin, and Lewis & Clark counties.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can have very serious complications when left untreated, but it is simple to prevent and can be cured with penicillin. When not adequately treated, syphilis can lead to visual impairment, hearing loss, cardiac arrest, dementia and even death. Syphilis infection can also increase a person’s risk for getting HIV or giving it to others.
One of the most serious complications is congenital syphilis, which can occur when an untreated woman with syphilis gives birth. Up to 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis die from the infection as a newborn.
Dana Fejes of the DPHHS STD-HIV Prevention Section said there are simple steps people can take to prevent STDs. “It is important for Montanans to know that STDs are preventable and treatable,” Fejes said. "Become informed about disease transmission and protect yourself. If you are sexually active, talk to your health care provider about the need for testing. If you are at risk, regular screening is essential in preventing transmission and long term health consequences associated with STDs.”
It is crucial that syphilis is detected early, reported timely and treated appropriately to prevent others from becoming infected and prevent any adverse health outcomes of untreated syphilis.
To lower the risk of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections, DPHHS recommends the following:
“If you are not comfortable speaking with your regular health care provider, contact one of the clinics listed on the DPHHS website for confidential and free or low-cost testing,” Fejes said.
For more information on STDs, HIV, testing, and how to protect yourself, contact your local health department or visit the DPHHS website.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention website also has more information, including this overview:
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause serious health problems if it is not treated. Syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). There are different signs and symptoms associated with each stage.
How is syphilis spread?
You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. You can find sores on or around the penis, vagina, or anus, or in the rectum, on the lips, or in the mouth. Syphilis can spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby.
What does syphilis look like?
Syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary), with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage. A person with primary syphilis generally has a sore or sores at the original site of infection. These sores usually occur on or around the genitals, around the anus or in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. These sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless. Symptoms of secondary syphilis include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis can be mild, and they might not be noticed. During the latent stage, there are no signs or symptoms. Tertiary syphilis is associated with severe medical problems. A doctor can usually diagnose tertiary syphilis with the help of multiple tests. It can affect the heart, brain, and other organs of the body.