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Health Alert: Rise in Cases of Syphilis, At-Risk Community Members Urged to Seek Testing and Treatment

(Ithaca, NY, June 02, 2022) — The Tompkins County Health Department is alerting the community about the local rise in cases of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection which can also be passed along to newborn infants via their birth parent. In 2021, there were 22 cases of syphilis in Tompkins County over the course of the year; in the first four months of 2022, there have already been 16 cases of syphilis.

Symptoms of syphilis include sores (called chancres), rashes or lesions, but most often the disease progresses undetected. If undetected and untreated, a person may live with syphilis for many years without knowing that they are infected, increasing the likelihood of spreading the disease. Latent stage syphilis is very serious; the disease may cause damage to vital internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.

You are at risk of contracting syphilis if you are sexually active, and are at a higher risk of contracting syphilis if you:

  • engage in high-risk sexual activity: i.e., having sex without a condom, having multiple sexual partners, having anonymous sex, and/or having sex while using drugs.
  • have HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.
  • are taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention.
  • have partner(s) who have tested positive for syphilis.

All pregnant people should receive syphilis testing at their first prenatal visit. The NYS Department of Health recommends that all pregnant people receive syphilis testing again during the third trimester at 28 weeks and again at delivery, as a necessary precaution. If you test positive, you should begin treatment right away.

If you are pregnant and have syphilis, you can give the infection to your unborn baby. Having syphilis can lead to a low-birth-weight-baby and can make it more likely you will deliver your baby too early or stillborn (born dead). At birth, a baby with a syphilis infection may not have signs or symptoms of disease. However, if the baby does not receive treatment right away, the baby may develop serious health problems within a few weeks, including cataracts, deafness, seizures or death.

To protect yourself and others, the following strategies are recommended:

  • Those at high-risk should test early and test often.
  • If you are pregnant, request testing for syphilis if it is not automatically offered.
  • If you test positive, share information about recent sexual partners with your healthcare provider to assist with contact tracing efforts to reduce the spread.
  • If you test positive, it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible and follow your course of treatment to completion.

Resources for low or no-cost screening, testing and treatment are readily available in Tompkins County. Local options include Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, REACH Medical, Southern Tier AIDS Program, or your primary care provider. College students may seek testing or referral at their on-campus health center. Need help finding help? Contact 2-1-1 (1.877.211.8667) for supportive referrals.

Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa stated, “We are advising the community of the importance of testing early and often for sexually transmitted infections and diseases, especially if you are at high-risk of contracting a STI or STD. The rise of syphilis cases locally is alarming, and it is important that everyone, especially those who are pregnant, seek testing for this infection to prevent spread and limit severity of disease by engaging in treatment as soon as possible.”

To learn more about prevention, testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, go to our webpage at: https://www.tompkinscountyny.gov/health/sti/syphilis#testing.

For more information about specific infections and diseases, visit our webpage at: https://www.tompkinscountyny.gov/health/communicable.

The Tompkins County Health Department is your partner for a healthy community. Find us online at TompkinsCountyNY.gov/health, and follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/TompkinsPublicHealth and on Twitter at @TompkinsHealth. Sign up to receive COVID-19 updates or other county announcements via email or text.

Media contact: Shannon Alvord, salvord@tompkins-co.org

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