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National rise in syphilis cases also seen in Allegheny County

The family planning aisle at a local Pittsburgh drugstore features a variety of condoms. In addition to preventing pregnancy, condoms also protect people from sexually transmitted diseases.
Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
The family planning aisle at a Pittsburgh drugstore features a variety of condoms. In addition to preventing pregnancy, condoms also protect people from sexually transmitted diseases including syphilis.

Reported syphilis cases rose on both the national and local levels, between 2018 and 2022.

Nationwide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report an 80% increase. The Allegheny County Health Department reports that during that same period, cases were up 79% — the sexually transmitted disease (STD) disproportionately impacts men who have sex with men and Black residents.

Syphilis can cause serious health problems, according to the CDC. In most cases, an infection clears with a single injection of penicillin. But left untreated, it can cause hearing loss, blindness, and even neurological changes, including dementia.

Syphilis is sometimes a herald for broader community health trends, said Dr. Yasaswi Kislovskiy, an OB-GYN and director of reproductive infectious diseases at Allegheny Health Network. That’s because monitoring is a bit better for syphilis than some other infectious diseases, she said.

“It makes me curious about whether or not those other infections are underreported, or are going to rise soon,” said Kislovskiy.

Internal data AHN shared with WESA shows that new cases of syphilis among the health system’s patients nearly quadrupled between 2018 and 2022, going from 43 to 170.

National experts tell NPR that there are various factors behind the rise in syphilis, including a decrease in condom use and an increase in substance use that can lead to higher-risk sexual behavior.

Nurse practitioner Nchima Chibaye said the recent CDC data shows there needs to be better public health outreach around syphilis. Chibaye treats patients at Allies for Health and Wellbeing, a sexual health clinic located in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood that specializes in the treatment and prevention of HIV, Hep C and other STDs.

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“We're not doing a good enough job at educating patients on practices of safer sex. We're not doing a good enough job, on putting out the information that people need to get regularly tested. We’re not doing a good enough job on contact tracing,” said Chibaye. She recommends that people get tested for syphilis every three-to-six months; the CDC says the same for people who have multiple or anonymous partners.

The Allegheny County Health Department said that disease intervention specialists perform contract tracing on every case of syphilis that is identified in the county. This includes affected individuals and their possible partners to ensure that they have appropriate access to treatment and follow-up testing.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.