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Wisconsin DOH Reports Large Increase in Syphilis Cases

SEP 20, 2017 | KRISTI ROSA
In May 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Call to Action in response to steadily increasing rates of syphilis on a national scale. Now, a recent report coming in from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services shows that the number of syphilis cases in 2016 increased by a staggering 58% compared with 2015.

The state’s reported cases went from 270 in 2015 to 427 in 2016, according to an article released by Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR). However, Wisconsin is not the only state experiencing an increased in these cases; in 2015, the CDC reported a 19% increase in primary and secondary syphilis on a national scale.

Men who have sex with men have the highest likelihood of infection both nationally, and in Wisconsin, according to Wisconsin STD Control Section public health educator Brandon Kufalk. In fact, the 2016 report showed that of the 427 infections, 367 occurred in men, 56 infections occurred in women, and four cases occurred in transgender individuals.

“The pattern this time around is men who have sex with men, then all men, and then women and pregnant women,” Paul Hunter, University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of family medicine and community health told WPR.

Women who are unaware of their infection and become pregnant are at risk of passing the infection onto their unborn baby, and recently, according to the CDC, there has been a “sharp increase in the number of babies born with syphilis in the United States.” If not treated early, congenital syphilis can cause any of the following: miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, low birth weight, or even death. In fact, 40% of babies born to women who have not received treatment for their infection are stillborn or die from infection, according to the CDC. Therefore, the CDC recommends that at all pregnant women get tested for syphilis at their first pre-natal visit to the doctor.

Mr. Kufalk suggests that individuals who are unaware of their infections may be a contributing factor to the increase in cases. Although those with syphilis usually present with sores at the sight of their infection, sometimes those sores are overlooked; thus, individuals can unknowingly spread the infection to their partners during sexual intercourse.

In addition, the increased availability of rapid syphilis testing, as well as stronger reporting practices, could also have contributed to the increased number of cases, as more individuals who are infected are identified and documented than may have been before, Mr. Kufalk postulated.

State health officials continue to channel their efforts into the implementation of rapid testing for syphilis so more individuals will become aware of their infections and receive the treatment they need.

“We know that the more testing that’s increased, the more cases we find, the sooner we stop the spread of disease among other people,” Mr. Kufalk explained to WPR.

In addition to testing, health officials are also working on promoting awareness of the disease among state residents. “By educating people about what syphilis is, we help them not only understand how they acquired the infection but also convince them to implement strategies to prevent this from happening again in the future,” Mr. Kufalk said.

The CDC shares with the public different ways to lower their chances of infection. These practices include the following:
  • Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner
  • Correctly using condoms during sexual intercourse
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse entirely
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