Syphilis infections rise

Published June 8, 2007

A sharp increase in cases of syphilis infection during the first quarter of 2007 has prompted Hillsborough County's chief health official to issue an alert to health care workers.

Forty-six cases were reported, a 54 percent increase over the same period in 2006, wrote Hillsborough Health Department director Douglas A. Holt in a recent letter to the county's health care providers.

Those include active infections and cases discovered after the bacteria had gone dormant.

"A significant proportion of these cases have occurred among men who have sex with men, " Holt said.

He also cited another trend.

"For the first time in years, cases have increased among teens and African-American women."

Though Pasco County officials say they have noticed no change, Pinellas County Health Department statistics indicate a rise in syphilis cases, but they remain most common among men who have sex with men, said spokeswoman Jeannine Mallory.

"It's not significant enough that we'd call it an outbreak, " she said. "It's business as usual here for us with testing and treatment."

The increase among teens, blacks and women worries George Hughes, head of the Hillsborough Health Department's sexually transmitted disease program.

"What's scary with women that have been infected is that now you're looking at congenital syphilis. With mostly men getting infected, we weren't having congenital cases, " Hughes said.

Babies born to infected mothers could die or suffer disabilities if the disease is not treated, though Florida statutes require expectant mothers to be tested.

Most of the increase in teens occurred among blacks, he said.

"We're trying to target those areas where those teens live, as far as outreach, education and screenings to identify new cases, " Hughes said.

He also said that making condoms available through high school health offices could combat the trend.

Syphilis declined nationwide during the 1990s, but it began to bounce back between 2000 and 2004, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In raw numbers, the disease still ranks a distant third behind chlamydia and gonorrhea, but its mild initial symptoms make it difficult to detect.

Studies indicate a two- to five-fold increased risk of HIV infection for those infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

"Our goal is to reduce it down to nothing, " he said.

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@ sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.

Reported cases of active syphilis

Source: Florida Department of Health

Fast Facts:


The syphilis bacterium, like those that cause gonorrhea and chlamydia, can be treated with antibiotics. But the symptoms are less visible than those of some other venereal diseases:

- Nine to 90 days after infection, a small, painless ulcer forms at the infection site - usually the genitalia, sometimes near the mouth. It can occur inside the body and is easily overlooked, but offers a prime spot for other infections like HIV.

- The ulcer disappears in two to three weeks, and a non-itchy rash or spots may form on the palms, soles of the feet or the whole body. Other symptoms are hair loss and aching joints.

- Those symptoms disappear, and the disease becomes latent, with a very low risk of infecting others.

- In a small portion of cases, latent syphilis flares up years later, ravaging the brain and internal organs, causing death or permanent damage.

Source: National Institutes of Health


Pinellas Hills.
2002 22 33
2003 51 43
2004 37 47
2005 42 41
2006 60 n/a