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Syphilis on rise across Arizona, particularly among women and infants

State health officials have declared a statewide outbreak of syphilis after a spike in reported cases, mainly affecting women and infants. They’re trying to get out the word on this sexually transmitted bacterial disease, whose symptoms can easily be overlooked.

And that can lead to problems with the skin, eyes and brain – and in severe cases, death.

Numbers released by the Arizona Department of Health Services show a sharp increase in infants contracting syphilis. Since Jan. 1, 47 cases have been reported in infants, eight of whom died or were stillborn. In addition, 90 cases of syphilis in infants were prevented, the department said.

This year, ADHS said, 664 Arizona women have contracted the disease, and 705 sexual partners were treated. Since January 2015, the monthly average number of syphilis diagnoses in women has jumped 258 percent, the department said.

A pregnant woman with syphilis can pass it on to her child. When a baby contracts syphilis in utero, it is called congenital syphilis.

“We’ve had over a hundred percent increase from last year in the number of (infant) deaths,” said Eugene Livar, deputy chief of the bureau of epidemiology and disease control for the Department of Health Services. “We’ve had over 40 cases of congenital syphilis and eight of those have died. Compared to the number we saw last year, that is a vast increase.

“It (syphilis) is known as the ‘great imitator,’ and a lot of times people may not even know or have signs that they’re infected at certain times during the infection.”

Early signs are painless sores on the genitalia or around the mouth or rectum that disappear after about two weeks, according to ADHS. If left untreated, new, white sores, swollen lymph nodes and rashes can occur. These symptoms also disappear on their own, but if the disease is left untreated, it can result in death.

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Nationwide, infection rates increased 9.8 percent among ages 15-19, and 7.8 percent among ages 20-24, in 2017 over the year before, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Stefanie Schroeder, chief of medical staff at ASU Health Services, said the rise in syphilis has not been seen among Arizona State University’s student population.

“We always work with Maricopa County public health service together in terms of making sure we test and we treat and we educate,” Schroeder said.

Staff members at ASU Health Services, she said, help students avoid contracting STDs and make it easier for them to get tested.

“Our regular testing when somebody says they want to be screened includes HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea,” ,” Schroeder said. “What we’d like to impress on students is they should get screened at least once a year and every time they change a sexual partner.”

ADHS recommends that people use condoms during every sexual encounter, reduce their number of sexual partners and be tested regularly for STDs.

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