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Syphilis outbreak hits Kansas City

In the first five months of 2005, 39 syphilis cases have been reported in Kansas City, compared to 39 cases for all of 2004. Of the 39 cases reported to date, 14 are co-infected with HIV.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It has been often called the “great imitator” because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases.

The Health Department has notified area physicians of this significant increase in syphilis cases.

“We are treating the increases in syphilis cases as an outbreak,” said Ron Griffin, manager of the Health Department’s Division of Communicable Disease and Public Health Preparedness. “Syphilis is treatable, but early intervention is the key to stopping the spread of the disease.”

It is important that people whose sexual behaviors put them at higher risk for STDs be screened for syphilis. Risks include, but are not limited to, multiple sex partners, new sex partners, trading sex for money and/or drugs, anonymous sex, or having a sex partner that engages in high risk behaviors.

The primary stage of syphilis is usually marked by a single sore (called a chancre), but there may be multiple sores. The chancre is usually firm, round, small and painless. Although the chancre lasts approximately three to six weeks and heals without treatment, the syphilis infection progresses to the second stage, if adequate treatment is not administered.

Skin rashes and mucous membrane lesions characterize the secondary stage. The characteristic rash of secondary syphilis may appear as rough, red or reddish brown spots on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet. However, sometimes there is a rash on other parts of the body, resembling rashes caused by other diseases. In addition to rashes, symptoms of secondary syphilis may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue.

The signs and symptoms of secondary syphilis will resolve with or without treatment, but without treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and late stages of the disease.

Without treatment, the infected person will continue to have syphilis even though there are no signs or symptoms. In the late stages of syphilis (over one year in duration), it may damage the 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.

For free confidential syphilis testing, contact the Health Department, (816) 513-6152.

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