Syphilis infection rate up in Utah

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The infection rate of syphilis is on the rise in Utah – 65 new cases of the disease were reported in 2010. More than 95 percent of new cases were reported along the Wasatch Front, according to a report issued by the Utah Department of Health. The bacterial disease occurs mainly in men who have sex with men.

The rate of syphilis in 2010 was 2.3 per 100,000 persons, a 93 percent increase from the rate of 1.2 per 100,000 persons documented in 2009. Syphilis rates have consistently increased since 2007, which had a documented rate of 0.7 per 100,000 persons.

Syphilis is a treatable and curable condition that is spread through contact with an open sore. The first stage of syphilis occurs nine to 90 days after infection and usually manifests itself in a sore that looks somewhat like a red pimple, said Tyler Fisher, a programming director at the Utah AIDS Foundation. The sore is not painful and many won’t even know they are infected, he said. It looks like a cold sore, pimple or other growth.

The bacteria can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, oral sex and anal sex. The sore often appears on the genitals and the mouth, and can infect both men and women.

“It’s so important to check your partner’s genitals before engaging in sexual activities. Also, wearing protection is always an important step,” Fisher said. “Syphilis can be cured, but needs to be taken care of as soon as possible.”

Having an open sore greatly increases the risk for contracting HIV and even someone topping in anal sex who is infected with syphilis greatly increases his chances of contracting HIV, he said.

“We also want to spread the word that those who are already infected with HIV need to worry about syphilis. The majority of those who contract it are already HIV positive,” Fisher said. “Too often people who are HIV positive think they don’t have anything else to worry about, but the effects can be devastating.”

If left untreated, syphilis can result in rashes on the hands and feet and eventually lead to brain damage.

The UAF offers syphilis testing for $5, and other agencies, such as the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, also offer low-cost testing and treatment. HIV and other tests are available Mondays and Thursdays, 5-7 p.m., at the UAF, 1408 S. 1100 East.

“People hear all about HIV testing, but I think sometimes we forget how important it is to be aware of other threats, such as syphilis,” Fisher said.

For more information, go to utahaids.org.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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