News: Syphilis Outbreak in in Oklahoma County Linked to a Social Network Defined by Drugs & Sex

Syphilis Outbreak in in Oklahoma County Linked to a Social Network Defined by Drugs & Sex

There has been an outbreak of syphilis in Oklahoma County with 75 confirmed cases connected by a social network driven by drug use and sex.

The Oklahoma City-County Health Department (OCCHD) and the Oklahoma State Department of Health confirmed the epidemic, which infected people aged 14 to 47, according to

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum which is spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or via an infected mother to her unborn child. The first symptoms usually appear 21 days after acquisition, but this can vary from 10 to 90 days.

Treponema pallidum spirochetes in the testis of an experimentally infected rabbit. Visualized using a modified Steiner silver stain. Image by Edwin P. Ewing, Jr./CDC

Any sexually active person can contract syphilis from an infected partner.

The symptomatic progression of the disease is threefold: Sores at the site of infection are characteristic of primary syphilis, while a rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever are indicative of secondary syphilis. Severe medical issues stem from tertiary syphilis which can affect the heart, brain, and other organs.

Officials say the catalysts for the Oklahoma outbreak are drugs, prostitution, and multiple sexual partners. Indeed, Tiffany Elmore of the OKC-County Health Department described it as "a very alarming outbreak." She said:

Anyone who has sex with multiple partners, anyone who trades sex for money or drugs, and frequent drug users—those would be the individuals who we're noticing within the social network that we really need to get in and get tested.

Consequences of syphilis include heart attack, paralysis, blindness, stroke, numbness, and dementia, as well as infertility and still birth. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there were 23,872 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, and 74,702 reported new diagnoses of syphilis (all stages).

Syphilis incidence dropped to its lowest in the early-2000s, but has been slowly rising in recent years, though nowhere near as prevalent as it was in the '40s.

Rates of Reported Cases by Stage of Infection, United States, 1941–2015. Image via CDC

A simple blood test can diagnose syphilis and thanks to antibiotics, it is a curable disease. Unfortunately, medication cannot undo the lasting damage resulting from the infection before it's treated. Speaking about preventative measures to stop the spread of syphilis, Elmore said:

Prevention would be having a long-term monogamous relationship, or abstaining from sex. Another option is to always wear condoms. To have that conversation with your partner and to get yourself screened and checked out.

Elmore told News9 that she had never seen anything like the epidemic in Oklahoma, which had the potential to get larger. The OCCHD are doling out free testing and treatment in their three clinics for anyone who fears they have been infected.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, or feel you have been exposed to the disease, it is important to visit your healthcare provider immediately.

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Cover image via Robert Sumpter/CDC

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