The New Mexico Department of Health announced today a spike in syphilis cases in 2012. According to the Department's provisional data, New Mexico doctors reported 101 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, or 4.9 per 100,000. This is the highest number and rate since 1988.
In 2000, syphilis, a once common sexually transmitted disease, dropped to its lowest point since reporting began in 1941, and health officials actually talked about its "elimination." It returned starting in 2001, especially among men who have sex with men, and sometimes co-occurring with HIV infection.
"Syphilis is only infectious in its early stages, so primary and secondary cases are especially significant because that is when it's easily spread," said Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward, MPH. "When diagnosed early, syphilis is easily treated, most effectively with shots of penicillin."
Syphilis has been called the "great imitator" because it is often confused with other diseases. Clinicians may rarely see an active case. It can cause open sores ("chancres") in the primary stage, and in secondary syphilis it can cause flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, and a characteristic rash that may cover the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Symptoms can be mild enough to be missed, even by experienced clinicians, and the diagnosis is usually made by blood tests. If untreated, the disease can persist for years without noticeable signs or symptoms, but can lead to severe damage to the brain and blood vessels. Congenital syphilis, when a baby is born to an untreated mother, can result in serious and lifelong complications.
Men are far more likely to contract syphilis. In 2012, males accounted for 91 percent of the 101 primary and secondary infections. There is also disparity by race and ethnicity: while almost half of the early syphilis cases in 2012 were among Hispanics, Native Americans had a rate that was 2.6 times higher than state rate for all races, while the rate for African Americans was 1.9 times higher.
The counties with the highest case rates were McKinley, Cibola, San Juan and Bernalillo.
In March, the Department of Health's STD Program launched an indoor media campaign in Albuquerque. It reminds people to get tested and if needed, to get treatment for STDs.
Anyone who believes they have been exposed to syphilis or any other STD can get tested, and treated if necessary, at their local Public Health Office. Also, to minimize the spread of this infection it is extremely important that all sexual partners are examined and possibly treated. Sites can be found at http://www.nmhivguide.org/.
Source: New Mexico Dept. of Health