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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Health Department announced that the county is experiencing an alarming increase in syphilis cases.
The trend is consistent with national data reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This year, the number of female cases in Salt Lake County has already doubled, according to Lynn Beltran, epidemiology supervisor at the Salt Lake County Health Department. Beltran also confirmed a total of 278 cases in men and 320 cases in women so far this year.
The county health department released data showing that between 2018 and 2022, Salt Lake County saw an 800% increase in syphilis cases among young women. Of these, 89% of cases involved women of childbearing age, aged 15 to 44.
The increase in this age group means an increased risk of neonatal syphilis in the community. The county has confirmed four cases of congenital syphilis in newborns so far this year.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Health, “Neonatal syphilis occurs when mothers do not receive timely tests and treatment during pregnancy. Syphilis during pregnancy can lead to stillbirth, miscarriage, or neonatal death, and surviving infants who are not properly treated may develop blindness, deafness, developmental delays, or skeletal abnormalities.
“I’ve been practicing pediatric infectious diseases for 35 years,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, director of epidemiology at Primary Children’s Hospital. “This year we evaluated, as a group, probably 35 to 40 women who were exposed to syphilis during pregnancy.”
“In 2022, we saw our first case of syphilis in a newborn since 2008,” said Dr. Angela C. Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. “Neonatal syphilis is particularly unfortunate because it is completely preventable: we can prevent newborns from suffering by ensuring women have affordable and convenient access to syphilis testing and treatment, as well as appropriate prenatal care.”
Rates of syphilis in the general population – not just women – have increased in recent years, but not as dramatically as among women. Overall, from 2018 to 2022, overall syphilis rates in Salt Lake County increased by 65%.
The CDC recommends that all pregnant women be tested for syphilis early in pregnancy and that people with multiple or anonymous sexual partners be tested for syphilis every three, six, or 12 months depending on their number of partners and their specific situation.
Authorities are also urging health care providers to immediately begin treatment for syphilis while awaiting confirmatory testing, when a patient tests positive on a rapid test.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria. Untreated, it can lead to serious health problems. The infection develops in stages, and each stage may have different signs and symptoms. Beltran said typical symptoms are unusual skin problems or sores, rashes and bumps. Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics, but treatment may not reverse the damage already caused by the infection.
For more information about syphilis, visit CDC.gov.
For testing and other resources in Salt Lake County, visit SLCO.org.