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Syphilis outbreak ramps up in Alaska

Laurel Andrews

New data released Monday underscores concerns of public health officials about a growing syphilis outbreak in Alaska that is linked to an uptick in HIV cases.

Disease transmission has "really kind of ramped up," said Susan Jones, HIV and STD program manager for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

The department first began talking about the trend last month. In a release posted Monday, officials identified some of the demographics surrounding the new cases.

In 2013, 32 new confirmed cases of syphilis were reported, a nearly 60 percent increase over the year before. Most cases were in Anchorage, and most of those infected, 26, were men. Nearly all those men identified as being bisexual, gay, or having had sex with other men.

Of the people who were interviewed by the department, roughly half of those infected in 2013 reported that they found sexual partners online, through sites such as Craigslist and Grindr. Earlier in May, Jones identified this trend as an alarming factor in the spread of sexually transmitted disease.

In one of the 2013 cases, a pregnant woman infected with syphilis gave birth to a stillborn infant after she passed the disease to her child.

In 2014, the outbreak continues. By April, 22 cases of syphilis had been identified, and "we still have other cases coming in" that have not been added to that tally, Jones said.

All the 2014 cases were men, and 91 percent said they had sex with men. Most of the 2014 cases were in Anchorage, Jones said. Eighty percent of people reported they used Internet sites to find sexual partners.

Coupled with the increase in syphilis is an uptick in HIV infection rates.

"The numbers are small, but the fact that there's this spike in HIV cases is concerning," Jones said Monday.

Last year, the department received 24 new reports of HIV in Alaska.

"If you have syphilis, you're much more susceptible to HIV," Jones said.

Likewise, if you have HIV you are more likely to transmit syphilis due to a lowered immune systems, she said.

Transmission of syphilis during pregnancy is another major concern. "Not only does it cause fetal demise, it can cause other problems to the fetus," Jones said.

Neurological problems can also take shape during later stages of syphilis, she said.

To combat the outbreak, the department is investigating each reported case and trying to identify the individual's sexual partners.

"That's been difficult to do, either because people don't know the names of the people they're having sex with, and sometimes people just don't want to reveal the names," Jones said.

In a push for more testing, the department is informing health care providers and major agencies -- including the military, the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center and the municipality of Anchorage -- of the spike in syphilis and HIV cases.

The department has also asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review the department's outbreak response "to see if they could provide any additional support (or) guidance in any way," Jones said.

The uptick in syphilis and HIV cases mirrors nationwide trend, Jones said. The number of syphilis cases in the U.S. doubled between 2005 and 2013, according to a recent CDC report. Most of those cases were in men.

The CDC estimates that 50,000 people in the U.S. are newly infected with HIV each year.

Reach Laurel Andrews at laurel@alaskadispatch.com.


By LAUREL ANDREWS
Alaska Dispatch