Doctor: 'Striking number' of Wake syphilis patients met partners online
Posted March 18, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — Online dating could be partially to blame for a spike in Wake County syphilis cases that has reached a 15-year high, public health officials said Friday.
Wake County Human Services reported 233 cases of early syphilis in 2015. Dr. Sue Lynn Ledford, public health division director, said a "striking number" of patients who were diagnosed with the sexually transmitted disease reported meeting their partners online.
"A lot of the contacts for sexual hookups are being made sometimes anonymously," Ledford said. "They don’t always know they have it in the first phases because the symptoms can be subtle at first, and they just don’t recognize that there is an issue."
She called a rash on the hands and feet "a real identifier" for the infection, and people can also experience urinary tract problems.
The number of syphilis cases in North Carolina increased 40 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Men accounted for 90 percent of syphilis cases, officials said, and almost half of the men diagnosed with the infection in 2014 also had HIV.
"I think that sometimes people that are HIV positive do feel protected by those medications," Ledford said. "That’s one of the communications that we want to get out for the community that is HIV-positive – there are other STDs they need to be concerned about."
Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics, but the infection cause blindness, damage to the brain and heart and even death if left untreated.
"To the public, we need them to understand that unprotected sex is putting you at pretty high risk," Ledford said. "Knowing who your sexual partners are and what their health status is is also very important."
Syphilis has been so rare for so long that many doctors haven't seen it before, she said, and some cases have been misdiagnosed.
"It wasn’t a common thing they were seeing in the community, so sometimes they miss the symptoms," she said. "What we are trying to do is increase our educational outreach to our physicians because that is something that, if the diagnosis is missed, it increases the transmission into the population."
Wake County Human Services has scheduled an educational session for health care providers next Tuesday at its office on Sunnybrook Road.
For more information on syphilis or HIV testing and treatment, call Wake County Human Services at 919-250-3950.