Aug 28, 2023 - Health

Syphilis rates still a concern for Arkansas health officials

Source: Arkansas Department of Health; Chart: Alex Golden/Axios
Source: Arkansas Department of Health; Chart: Alex Golden/Axios

Arkansas, like much of the country, continues to grapple with a surge in syphilis cases.

Why it matters: Syphilis can cause serious health problems — like blindness, hearing loss or dementia — if left untreated, according to the CDC.

Flashback: The Arkansas Department of Health issued a PSA last spring stressing the need to prevent, test for and treat syphilis after the state saw a 164% increase in early-syphilis cases from 2017 to 2021, and a 285% increase among girls and women ages 15-44.

State of play: The department has been working to educate medical providers on the need to test patients for the disease, regardless of whether the providers think those patients might have it, Naveen Patil, deputy state health officer and medical director of infectious diseases, told Axios.

  • The department has also focused on emergency departments, where many pregnant women may seek treatment. Babies can contract the disease during pregnancy.
  • The state saw 69 cases of congenital syphilis last year, and eight babies died, Patil said.

A lack of public education and the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections are complicating efforts to get the outbreak under control.

  • There's also a nationwide shortage of penicillin, which is the go-to treatment for the disease. Without it, patients have to take alternative medications daily for weeks, rather than getting as little as one shot at the doctor's office, Patil said.
  • Syphilis is spread through sexual contact and can be prevented by using condoms and seeking testing and treatment early.

By the numbers: The number of cases statewide in 2022 was slightly down from 2021 — from 1,516 to 1,457. It's still more than double the number of cases from 2019, when the state saw 673 cases, according to data from the health department.

Be smart: The number of cases is concerning; however, more known cases is not necessarily a bad thing. The more cases health providers confirm by testing, the more patients will get treated.

  • The surge in known cases was discovered by increased testing, as more people sought health care as COVID-19 waned, Patil said.
  • Patil pointed out that some counties have high rates because they have prisons that test all the inmates.

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