The Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) announced today that it has identified an outbreak of syphilis occurring among teenagers younger than age 18 in the central Oklahoma area. Health officials are alarmed because syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) most often seen in older age groups and it can have significant health outcomes if undiagnosed and untreated. Officials are also concerned that the outbreak may spread to counties beyond central Oklahoma.
Health officials believe the growing popularity of teens attending parties where unprotected group sexual activity is encouraged may be fostering the opportunities for teens to become infected.
"The good news is that syphilis can be identified by examination and testing, cured with antibiotics, and through disease investigation, the spread of syphilis can be stopped," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley.
Health Department confirms syphilis outbreak
Syphilis is a curable bacterial infection that is primarily spread through sexual contact. A person can contract and spread syphilis through oral, anal and vaginal sex or through other intimate contact including kissing (when a syphilis sore is present in the mouth). Often, the primary lesion, called a chancre, develops during the early stages of the disease. However, it may go unnoticed, as it is painless and can be on or in the penis, or inside the vagina, anus or mouth. Usually this sore will go away, with or without treatment, but one can still transmit the disease to others until treated. If left untreated, syphilis can cause damage to major organs, principally the brain and blood vessels. It can also cause serious birth defects.
Other symptoms of syphilis that may develop later include rashes that appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of hands and bottoms of the feet, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, and fatigue. Early detection and treatment prevent further damage that syphilis may cause to the body and may also reduce the risk for HIV transmission.
"We want to encourage our youth to seek testing and treatment if they have been having unprotected sex, particularly with multiple sex partners," said Jan Fox, chief, OSDH HIV/STD Service. "Free confidential testing and treatment are available at local county health departments."
Approximately 4,050 new sexually transmitted infections occur each year in Oklahoma among youth age 18 and younger. In 2008, 249 cases of syphilis were reported in Oklahoma. Of that number, 15 were reported in teens younger than 18.
"There are many effective ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat syphilis and other STDs. Consistent condom use is one effective way to prevent becoming infected with STDs including syphilis. Once infected, STD screening and early diagnosis are vital to prevent serious health consequences and increased transmission. Screening is particularly important since many STDs often have no signs or symptoms," Fox emphasized.
State and local health officials plan future trainings for school health nurses to help them learn more about STDs and the resources available in their communities for screening and treatment of their students.
For more information about syphilis and other STDs, visit these Web sites: http://hivstd.health.ok.gov/ or www.cdc.gov/std.