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National News

The Plague Busters: Finding New Syphilis Intervention Strategies

June 2, 2003

Why worry over syphilis, a centuries-old scourge that is easily treated with penicillin? Syphilis boosts the chances of giving or getting HIV by up to five times, and HIV is much tougher to treat and impossible to cure. A rise in syphilis raises the specter of a new AIDS epidemic.

Cases of syphilis have tripled in and around Tucson, Ariz., over the past year. Massachusetts has found an 87 percent increase between 2001 and 2002, and the upward trend is continuing. Case reports have risen 67 percent in Minnesota, 50 percent in New York City, and 27 percent in Los Angeles. And across 25 states, HIV infections have registered their first increase since 1993.

The outbreaks seem driven by society's margins -- impoverished gays, drug addicts, prostitutes -- who are somehow beyond the reach of standard health services. The situation has grown so distressing that CDC has sent workers across the country to find new intervention strategies.

"It has been unrelenting," said Peter Kerndt, who runs the STD program of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "We haven't seen the end of it. We haven't seen it peak," he said.

In March, a CDC team touched down in Broward County, Fla., which has seen syphilis rates soar by 88 percent. Howard Sommers, acting director of the county's STD program, said CDC and his staff together planned a vigorous outreach: getting clinics to do more syphilis screenings and getting a hospital to run an after-hours men's health clinic. Almost all the men Sommers sees with syphilis also have HIV.

"Many [of the men] are HIV-positive and on medical regimens," said Kontar Mosi, from the Health Education Resource Organization, a Baltimore nonprofit organization that runs a syphilis screening van. "They are close to 100 percent healthy, so they are lapsing back into non-condom use," said Mosi.

Other cities are trying different outreach approaches. In wired San Francisco, public health workers post syphilis information in an Internet chat room. In Los Angeles, a mascot character named Phil the Syphilis Sore has been remarkably effective. "People who have seen the campaign are 80 percent more likely to get tested," said Kerndt.

Back to other CDC news for June 2, 2003

Previous Updates

Adapted from:
U.S. News & World Report
06.02.03; Samantha Levine

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
See Also
Syphilis -- a Dreadful Disease on the Move
Syphilis Fact Sheet
Basic Questions and Answers About Syphilis and Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM)
More News and Research on Syphilis in the U.S. and Canada