Syphilis diagnoses have risen threefold in Oneida County this year.
There have been 15 new cases of early syphilis so far this year, compared to only five last year, according to the Oneida County Health Department. That increase has public health officials concerned enough to sound the alarm.
The health department sent a letter to providers last month warning them about the increase. And the department paired with ACR Health and Planned Parenthood Mohawk-Hudson to hold a press conference on syphilis Thursday morning.
“The good news is that syphilis is treatable and preventable,” said John Arcaro, ACR Health’s director of prevention and community initiatives.
But treatment only works if patients get diagnosed. Officials at the news conference advised residents to get tested. Private doctors, ACR Health and Planned Parenthood all offer testing.
Three of this year’s diagnoses have been in women. In recent years, syphilis mostly has affected men who have sex with men, said Emma Corbett, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson. To see women affected tells public health workers that something different is going on, she said.
The rise in cases and the spread to women present the possibility of two even scarier scenarios. The first is the potential lag time between infection and diagnosis in a disease that can go years without causing symptoms.
“It tells us the potential pool of those impacted by the disease is possibly much higher,” Corbett said.
The second is the threat of congenital syphilis. No babies have been born with syphilis in Oneida County in recent years, but an increase statewide led to an advisory letter to health care providers from the New York State Department of Health in July.
Congenital syphilis cases rose by 167 percent last year, according to the health department.
All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis, Corbett said. The disease can be treated in utero, but left untreated, it can lead to birth defects and stillbirth.
“Up to 40 percent of babies that are born with syphilis don’t make it,” said Wil Murtaugh, ACR’s executive director.
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The increase in syphilis locally fits in with a nationwide increase for four years straight, Murtaugh said. Syphilis cases also are on the rise across the state as are other sexually transmitted infections.
Syphilis can be treated with a week of antibiotics, most often penicillin. Treating syphilis early prevents some of its more serious consequences, such as tumors, blindness, paralysis and death.
Syphilis is spread through anal, oral and vaginal sex, and, because it can be spread through sores, condoms offer some, but not complete, protection. There is a widespread misconception, Corbett said, that hormonal birth control can prevent sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis; it can’t.
Corbett, Arcaro and Murtaugh all urged area residents to talk to their doctors about their risk for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. Both Planned Parenthood and ACR Health also can sign people up for health insurance to cover their care.
Contact reporter Amy Neff Roth at 315-792-5166 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Roth).