Some bad news from King County Public Health Department. “In 2010, 283 cases of syphilis were reported, an 82 percent increase from 2009. Syphilis had been virtually eliminated in King County in the early-1990s.” And, a whopping NINETY percent of those case were diagnosed in men who have sex with men, and over half of those cases being attributed to men diagnosed as HIV positive. Syphilis and other STD rates of infection are also on the rise nationally, especially among younger gay men. Health officials are baffled as to causes for the increased number of cases but urge, as always, for men to always use condoms and to seek medical attention at the first sign of any physical symptom for a STD.
Syphilis causes a broad range of symptoms that can make it hard to diagnose, particularly for providers who don’t see a lot of patients with syphilis. Importantly, syphilis is caused by a bacterial infection and is curable with antibiotics.
Shortly after infection, syphilis causes an ulcer on the genitals, anus or mouth. However, the ulcers often go unnoticed because they are painless or in areas of the body that aren’t easily seen. After the sore heals, syphilis causes a body rash that can include the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. This, too, can go unnoticed by men and their medical providers.
Once the rash resolves, men have no symptoms but are still infected and are still at risk for severe medical consequences, including vision loss, loss of hearing and stroke. Among recent cases, at least six persons have suffered some loss of vision, though most affected persons’ symptoms improved with treatment.
Condoms can prevent the spread of syphilis. However, many men are unaware that syphilis can be spread through oral sex. The Public Health HIV/STD Program advises that all sexually active men who have sex with men should be routinely tested for STDs, including syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and HIV. All men who have sex with men should be tested annually, and men with higher risk should be tested once every three months. Since syphilis increases the risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV infection, anyone diagnosed with syphilis should be tested for HIV.
STD testing is available in primary care medical providers’ offices, Gay City Wellness Center, the King County STD Clinic, and other public health clinics. For more information, please visit the Public Health — Seattle & King County HIV/STD Program website at www.kingcounty.gov/health/std.
And, obviously for gay and bisexual men, Gay City Wellness Center should be one of the first places you should contact for further information and testing, especially if you don’t have a regular medical provider or don’t feel comfortable discussing a possible STD with your current medical provider.