Updated Apr 18, 2023 - News

Syphilis skyrockets among heterosexual women in Seattle

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Syphilis infections in Seattle-area women have risen to epidemic levels, vaulting from 117 cases of early syphilis in 2021 to 190 cases in 2022, according to the latest data from Public Health-Seattle & King County.

  • As recently as 2017, 63 women were diagnosed with syphilis countywide, according to public health data.

Why it matters: County health officials just issued one of the nation's most aggressive testing recommendations, urging screening for all women under 45 who have not been tested since January 2021, said Matthew Golden, director of the public health department's HIV/STD program and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

What they're saying: In recent years, the relative rise in syphilis cases among heterosexual women has far outpaced the increases among other demographic groups, Golden told Axios.

  • "The epidemic has become explosive in the last two years," he said.

Context: Untreated syphilis, which can begin with painless sores and a rash, can spread to the brain, nervous system and other organs. But it is especially devastating, and can lead to death, for newborns who contract it from an infected mother.

Zoom in: Women who are living without stable housing, using substances or engaging in transactional sex are at the highest risk in Seattle and King County, according to Golden. When someone is buying sexual services, the consequences can bleed out to partners who are not aware, he said.

Catch up quick: Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis surged in the U.S. in the second year of the pandemic, reaching more than 2.5 million cases in 2021, the CDC reported earlier this month.

  • Public health experts believe STDs have been rising for a variety of reasons, including declining condom use, increased opioid use, inadequate sex education, and reduced testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By the numbers: Nationally, cases of syphilis jumped 32% in 2021 over 2020, and have increased by 74% over the past five years, per the CDC.

  • Syphilis among newborns nationally increased by more than 203% in five years.
  • Gonorrhea and chlamydia rates increased by more than 4% between 2020 and 2021.

Be smart: Public health officials are concerned about the rise in cases, which coincides with a spike in treatment-resistant organisms, including antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea.

What's next: Public Health-Seattle & King County has dramatically ratcheted up testing, including in jails and emergency rooms, and is being diligent about notifying people's partners who might have been exposed, Golden said.

  • Further, the department is willing to pull out all stops for people who reach out needing help, including getting a motel room to ensure people get their shots on time, he said.
  • For more information, call the Sexual Health Clinic at 206-744-3590.

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