Portland: Tops in coffee, #5 in syphilis

Reported cases have spiked from fewer than 30 in 2007 to 450 so far this year

The organism treponema palladium, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope, May 23, 1944. (AP Photo)
The organism treponema palladium, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope, May 23, 1944. (AP Photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Since 2007, the rate of syphilis diagnoses has grown 1500%, with Portland ranking 5th in the nation.

Kim Toevs, the Sexually Transmitted Diseases program manager for Multnomah County, said that means there are “about 250 cases in our county each year.”

Statewide, syphilis cases zoomed from about 30 in 2007 to about 450 so far this year.

The Oregon Health Authority is launching an awareness campaign aimed at public and health care providers. The campaign, called Syph Aware, will place ads on TriMet buses and launch a website with information about the disease.

Dr. Sean Schafer, a medical epidemiologist with the authority, says the campaign should remind high-risk groups to use protection and to be aware of the rise in infections.

The organism treponema palladium, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope, May 23, 1944. (AP Photo)
The organism treponema palladium, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope, May 23, 1944. (AP Photo)

Syphilis is an STD that “can move throughout the body,” Toevs told KOIN 6 News. “It can infect a baby in the uterus, which can be devastating, and it can get into the spinal column and have permanent neurological damage as well.”

Health officials are looking at a “few different sub-populations” where the rate is high.

“One of the things we found out is that there are a lot of gay and bisexual men who, despite our targeted community outreach, still didn’t have the message,” she said.

She said there are more cases now being seen among women and heterosexual men, and a few where a fetus contracted syphilis in utero.

–> Take the Syph Aware Quiz to find out what you know about syphilis <–

“I think it’s really important for folks who are at high risk to get tested regularly,” Toevs said. Among those are gay and bisexual men and women whose partners had sex with other people.

Those women, she said, “did not perceive themselves to be at high risk.”

Also at high risk are users of heroin, cocaine, meth and prostitutes.

Kim Toevs, the Sexually Transmitted Diseases program manager for Multnomah County, Nov. 9, 2015 (KOIN)
Kim Toevs, the Sexually Transmitted Diseases program manager for Multnomah County, Nov. 9, 2015 (KOIN)

For doctors, syphilis is easy to spot in a blood test. However, the symptoms — including a painless sore in the genital area or a rash on the bottoms of the feet or the palms of the hand — often go away.

“But you still have it,” she said.

Untreated, syphilis can affect brain function, balance, hearing, vision and hearing and cause problems with cognition.

“It is treatable with penicillin,” she said. “This is not a permanent disease. It’s easy to treat if you know you have it.”

The reason for the spike in syphilis cases, she said, is due in part to an increasing awareness of safe sex.

“The concern that’s been driving safe sex — limiting partners, using condoms — has primarily been HIV in the community. But we have more and more information that if people get on early HIV treatment it’s virtually impossible for them to transmit HIV to someone else, the chance is very low. So as people have less concern about transmitting HIV then they may have less of a motivation to use condoms.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

One of the ads put together by the Oregon Health Authority for their Syph Aware campaign, Nov. 9, 2015 (OHA)
One of the ads put together by the Oregon Health Authority for their Syph Aware campaign, Nov. 9, 2015 (OHA)

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