Experts advise caution after NE Ohio syphilis surge

DKS Editors

While a syphilis outbreak has hit Cleveland, John Ferlito, health commissioner for the city of Kent, said there were only three new cases of syphilis reported in the city last year.

In a recent report, the Cleveland Department of Public Health documented a significant increase of the disease from July 2007 to November 2008. During these months, 123 news cases of syphilis were reported in Cleveland.

The numbers between April and November of 2008 were four-and-a-half times higher than normal.

Medical centers in Cleveland are trying to raise awareness about syphilis after these reports of an outbreak. Ferlito recommended students visit the DeWeese Health Center or Townhall II clinic if they think they have symptoms of syphilis.

“It’s difficult to identify why there seems to be an increase in cases sometimes and not in others,” said Matt Carroll, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health. “There seems to be a cyclical aspect to syphilis cases not only locally but nationally – it’s really hard for anybody to identify.”

According to the department’s study, 38 percent of new cases were in the age group of 14 to 24. This is an increase from the 26 percent of new cases in this age group prior to the outbreak.

Carroll said syphilis is passed through sores from various types of sexual activity and other direct contact with another person. There are three forms of early syphilis: primary, secondary and early latent syphilis. Even if a patient doesn’t appear to have the symptoms after being diagnosed, Carroll said people can still have the disease.

“Ten to 20 years after that first infection, you can get the latent stages,” Carroll said. “If that happens, it can be very serious damage to internal organs and sometimes the nervous system.”

Carroll said the department has contacted health care providers and departments in Cuyahoga County and asked them to look for syphilis when they are treating patients and inform patients about the disease.

“Really it’s an educational process and increased testing and screening,” Carroll said. “You can’t treat (syphilis) if you don’t know that you have it, so we are stressing those kinds of themes.”

While the number of cases in Cleveland is high, Carroll said students should focus on how to prevent contracting the disease.

“I think the best thing is to focus on the things you can do yourself,” Carroll said. “Focusing on the fact that there’s an outbreak in our area or an outbreak in other parts of the state, you can’t control that. The bottom line is personal prevention, just being responsible, not putting yourself in a position where you could have this experience.”

Carroll said students with any doubt about having the disease should get tested, regardless of where they are from.

“We wouldn’t think in terms of where you are or where you’re going or where you’re from – we would focus on what you could do for yourself and how you can prevent this from ever happening to you,” Carroll said. “It doesn’t matter whether there is a outbreak in your community or not. If you engage in certain behavior you’re at risk for not only syphilis but for a variety of sexually transmitted infections.”

Contact health reporter Nick Walton at [email protected].