April 27, 2004
A regional spike in syphilis cases has health professionals concerned that safe sex messages have lost their impact, particularly among gay men. Last year, 30 cases of syphilis were reported in Connecticut; 13 cases of syphilis have been reported since January, recent state figures show. New syphilis cases in the state have more than doubled in the past two years, with gay men comprising 77 percent of those cases.
The rise of syphilis cases could also signal an HIV/AIDS outbreak, as it did in the 1980s, said Heidi Jenkins, program director of the Connecticut Department of Public Health's STD Control Program. "STDs are cyclical," said Jenkins. "What we have seen before, we will see again."
Health officials believe that many younger gay men are more likely to be engaging in unprotected sex, putting them at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and STDs. "There is a group of young people born at the beginning of the virus who are now in their early 20s, and they have heard the same HIV/AIDS message their whole lives," said Robert Sideleau, a project manager at the Mid- Fairfield AIDS Project. "The education message has not changed with time, and it is not reaching them."
Norwalk-based STD specialist Dr. Gary Blick had not seen a single case of syphilis in his 16 years of practice; however, since last July, he has since treated 25 cases. "We have to get that sense of panic back out there," said Blick, who founded the Connecticut HIV/AIDS/STD Task Force last year to study the rise in the diseases and develop a prevention plan. "People stopped caring, and they are under the misconception that everything is under control and not a death sentence anymore and can be easily treated, but it is really not."