BURLINGTON – State health officials say cases of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that had virtually disappeared in Vermont, are on the rise.
Nine cases of syphilis were reported in Vermont in 2007, up threefold from 2006 and well over the zero to one cases reported in prior years. Vermont's numbers follow a nationwide trend in which syphilis cases have spiked recently after hitting an all-time low in 2000.
"It's probably the largest increase we've seen in several years," state epidemiologist Dr. Cort Lohff said Wednesday.
Almost all the cases involve men who have had sex with other men, according to Lohff. Of particular concern, he said, is that men are contracting the potentially deadly disease during sexual encounters inside state borders.
"We have periodically seen cases of syphilis in Vermont, but what we've actually seen this past year is that the cases are being contracted here in Vermont and not necessarily contracted in other cities or states outside Vermont," Lohff said. "That's a troubling sign that may cause the epidemic to further itself and for more cases to continue to occur."
Syphilis remains a comparatively rare sexually transmitted disease. However, if left untreated, the infection may cause life-threatening complications. Syphilis also increases the risk of acquiring HIV, according to Lohff.
"In spite of the decline in syphilis cases in the 1990s, the disease was still around and it found its niche in certain populations, especially in larger cities in the U.S.," Lohff said. "Slowly since then it has been finding its way to other parts of the United States, including Vermont."
Though often difficult to physically detect, syphilis is easily diagnosed in blood screenings and easily cured if caught early. Lohff said that, outside of eliminating sexual partners, practicing safe sex is the best way to avoid contracting the disease. Men with multiple sexual partners, he said, should be tested for not only syphilis but other sexually transmitted diseases as well.
Nancy Mosher, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the syphilis numbers make clear a potential public health threat.
"It's a great opportunity to remind people that sexually transmitted infections are here in Vermont," Mosher said. "Although the syphilis numbers are very low, it probably means there are one or two communities where it's being passed around."
Mosher said rates of Chlamydia in the state are much higher and encouraged Vermonters to get tested regularly and practice safe sex by using a condom.
"I think there is some good reason to give some renewed public messaging and education about these issues," Mosher said.
Syphilis first appears as a painless sore, Lohff said. In many cases, the sores may not be noticed. As a result, transmission often occurs from persons who are not aware they are infected. If left untreated, a rash and swollen lymph nodes, along with other symptoms, such as headache, fever, sore throat, and fatigue, may follow.
Vermonters can be tested for the disease at any of Planned Parenthood's 13 regional offices. To locate a clinic, or for more information on syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, call the Vermont Department of Health's hotline at 802-863-7245 or 1-800-244-7639, or visit the website at www.healthvermont.gov.MORE IN Central Vermont
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