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Syphilis transmission in Central Louisiana quadruples, prompts concern for childbearing aged women

Published: Jun. 7, 2021 at 7:46 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 7:48 PM EDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - The battle to slow the spread of sexually transmitted infections is seeing progress, but it’s lagging behind where state doctors wish to see the state.

“Louisiana has been in the top three of the United States and a lot of efforts are being done to try and decrease that, " Dr. David Holcombe, Region Six Medical Director of the Office of Public Health said. “We’re doing a little bit better in the state as a whole, with the exception of syphilis.”

Dr. Holcombe said data is showing positive signs of decreased spread in other STIs excepted for syphilis.

In May, the Louisiana Department of Health released an alert to Central Louisiana asking all medical providers to increase screening for syphilis because of the growing threat.

The letter states since 2017, the Alexandria region quadrupled its number of early cases. The most staggering were the cases for women. The data released showed from 2019 to 2020 the number of early cases among women jumped by 62%.

Louisiana also ranks 9th in the nation among primary and secondary syphilis cases and 5th in congenital syphilis, when an infected pregnant mother passes the infection to the fetus. Among all statewide congenital syphilis cases, the Alexandria region makes up 14%.

Louisiana has the highest rate of syphilis cases at 93.4%. (SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control...
Louisiana has the highest rate of syphilis cases at 93.4%. (SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

One issue with treating syphilis is its difficulty to diagnose. It occurs in multiple stages, and some patients do not show symptoms.

“The problem with syphilis is that between your exposure and when you develop symptoms if any, there’s a lag time there,” he said. “Then the symptoms go away and can be gone for several and have no other manifestations. But, the person can still transmit the disease during this time.”

The first stage of infection involves a sore on genitals or other areas of sexual contact. The sore is painless and will eventually heal. During the second stage, the infected person develops a rash.

“They develop a rash, and the rash can look like anything. It’s sometimes very tricky to diagnose. If you do not treat it, it goes on to a third form.”

The third stage is tertiary syphilis. At that point, brain and nervous system damage can happen.

Dr. Holcombe said syphilis and many other STIs are simple to treat. However, many people are not seeking care.

Michael Parham, a registered nurse who treated patients at Central Louisiana Aids Support Services in Alexandria said sex being a controversial topic in Southern states leads to poor health access.

“I think that lack of access can be directly tied to stigma within those communities,” Parham said. “We don’t want to talk about sets in the genteel proper south. We are still in a place where it’s considered dirty and taboo.”

Parham said people come into the CLASS clinic with several questions.

“People often come into the clinic, where I volunteer and have no symptoms of sexually transmitted infections and don’t know what symptoms might be if they were there,” he said. “What infections they are at risk, or increased risk for based upon the sexual activities that they participate in and don’t know that the healthcare is there.”

The main message is to know your status by getting tested and seeking treatment.

“Well if you’re in a monogamous relationship with a stable partner, then your risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease is about zero,” Dr. Holcombe said. “But, if you have multiple partners, especially partners that you don’t know well, associated with drug use or either intoxicants, you should be tested, and you should be tested regularly.”

STI screenings are available at the Office of Public Health in each parish.

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