Texas: Syphilis Can Help Spread HIV; New Campaign Designed to Raise Public Awareness

Houston and Harris County health officials are launching a new educational campaign aimed at making area residents aware of the connection between syphilis and HIV/AIDS.

Harris County reported a decline in new syphilis cases in the last two years. Even so, 2009's 317 cases represent a 359 percent increase since 1999, the first year after the county stopped receiving a CDC syphilis prevention grant. Houston recorded the nation's second-highest number of syphilis cases in 2007 (443), dropping to eighth in 2009.

"Harris County hasn't seen so much syphilis in 60 years," said Dr. Robert Andrade, an infectious-disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Thomas Street Health Center.

On Friday, public health experts conducted a symposium for health care providers in Acres Homes -- a center for syphilis activity in the county. Forty percent of Houston's syphilis cases are co-infected with HIV, with African Americans accounting for a majority of these patients. Syphilis can increase HIV transmission fivefold, said Michael Ross, a professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Ross said a big factor in the city's syphilis epidemic of the last decade is gay men using the Internet to find sex partners. "HIV-positive men will hook up with other HIV-positive men and HIV-negative men will hook up with other HIV-negative men, both groups thinking that they're safe. But they don't realize they're often spreading syphilis or other STDs," said Ross, a symposium speaker.