According to King County health officials in Washington state, there has recently been an unusual number of severe eye complications from syphilis infection, half of which were in men living with HIV. The Seattle Times reports that six cases have been reported in Washington overall, with four in King County alone -- the state's most populous county and home to Seattle, its biggest city. Two of the six have become blind as a result.
Ocular syphilis affects fewer than one in a million people every year, Russell Van Gelder, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the ophthalmology department at the University of Washington, told The Seattle Times. It is a complication of secondary syphilis, which occurs approximately four to 10 weeks after a primary infection that has not been treated. However, ocular syphilis afflicts only about 10% of people with syphilis, according to Van Gelder.
Of the six men infected with syphilis, three reported having sex with other men prior to their diagnosis, and three of the men are HIV positive. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gay and bisexual men account for 70% of all syphilis infections nationwide. The highest rates are among gay and bisexual men who are 20 to 29 years old. Syphilis and HIV are a dangerous duo: Syphilis causes inflammation and open sores in the genital region that puts one at high risk for HIV infection if one is exposed to HIV; and syphilis can increase the viral load of HIV-positive people.
According to The Seattle Times, each patient reported similar visual symptoms, including loss of vision, blurring, a blue tint to their vision and seeing "floaters" and flashing lights. Three were hospitalized and treated with intravenous penicillin.
About 400 cases of syphilis are reported every year in King County, with 56,741 new cases of syphilis reported in the U.S. in 2013, according to the CDC. In The Seattle Times, Van Gelder said he isn't clear what may have caused this specific cluster of ocular syphilis, though he did state that some strains of syphilis-causing bacteria are more likely to affect the eye or the central nervous system.
Health officials are urging all gay and bisexual men in Washington who are not part of a mutually monogamous relationship to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) annually -- or more frequently if they feel they are at higher risk for HIV or STI acquisition.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.