Arizona Launches Campaign to Combat Deadly Syphilis Outbreak

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The state health department reports that 664 women and 47 newborns have been diagnosed with the disease this year. Eight of those infected newborns have died.

Arizona is wrestling with an alarming spike in cases of syphilis in women and newborns, leading the health department last week to declare the elevated rate of infection an outbreak and to launch a plan with health agencies statewide to boost public awareness and education efforts.

“We’re trying to get the word out and spread the message to protect yourself and to get tested and be aware of your status,” Dr. Eugene Livar, interim bureau chief of Epidemiology and Disease Control for the Arizona Department of Health Services, told KTAR News.

The department is updating the numbers of cases diagnosed across the state in real time. On Wednesday, the state reported 637 cases diagnosed in women and 45 in newborns. By Sunday night, the state reported 664 cases diagnosed in women and 47 in newborns.

By contrast, the state reported a total of 14 cases of congenital syphilis in 2015.

Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, can cause brain damage and blindness if left untreated. The infection is detected through a blood test and can be cured with antibiotics. In fetuses, however, the disease moves quickly. Many infected infants die in the womb or are born alive but deaf and/or deformed.

“What we’ve seen in the congenital cases is that the women are usually not engaging in primary care or in prenatal care, and so they may not be seen until the time of delivery, and by then it’s too late,” Paula Mandel, director of the Pima County Health Department told Tucson’s KOLD News 13.

Health officials tracking syphilis rates around the country will see the numbers from Arizona as part of a disturbing larger trend.

The Wyoming Department of Health in October reported a 36 percent increase over last year in cases of syphilis.

Alaska health officials the same month reported that the 75 cases so far recorded in the state this year represent the largest syphilis outbreak in the state in at least four decades.

In August, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that national rates of syphilis and sexually transmitted diseases gonorrhea and chlamydia had climbed for the fourth consecutive year, reaching nearly 2.3 million cases, the highest number ever reported.

The CDC reported that the total number of congenital syphilis cases in the country in 2017 reached 918.

In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared an end to a national two-year shortage of Benzathine Penicillin G, the only antibiotic that can block syphilis from crossing the placenta to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease. BPG, as the antibiotic is called, is a low-cost off-patent medication, a fact that has “limited the enthusiasm for commercial manufacturers to enter or even continue in the BPG market,” according to the World Health Organization.

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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