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Health Department 'Very Concerned' About Syphilis Increase

Syphilis cases in Allegheny County have risen about 75 percent this year compared to 2013, the Allegheny County Health Department said Wednesday.

As of Nov. 10, 98 syphilis cases have been reported in the county, compared to 56 this time last year. After a drop in cases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, syphilis has been on the rise since 2005, locally and nationally.  

"Obviously we're most concerned about our local jurisdiction," says Dr. Harold Wiesenfeld, director of the sexually transmitted diseases (STD) program at the county Health Department. "But we also want to compare rates to other areas of the country to see what we're seeing here is a local phenomena with local issues that need to be addressed as opposed to what national trends are being observed."

About 90 percent of cases have occurred in men, the majority of whom have had sexual contact with other men, according to Wiesenfeld.

"It's worrisome because approximately 40 percent of the men with syphilis are also co-infected with HIV," he said.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can have long-term health effects if left untreated, such as heart and nervous system complications and vision impairment. In its early phases, syphilis can cause mouth and genitalia sores, as well as a rash on the hands and feet. The disease can be treated and cured with antibiotics.

The Health Department is advising sexually active men and women to follow safe sex practices, such as using latex condoms and reducing the number of sexual partners to people they know don't have an STD.

"We also are very concerned  about anonymous sex in certain communities, and we urge residents of Allegheny County not to partake in sexual activity with partners they aren't familiar with," Wiesenfeld said.

Free screenings and syphilis treatment are available at the health department’s STD Clinic at 3441 Forbes Ave. in Oakland.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."
Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm