California is number two – in syphilis cases

July 17, 2014

By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California

In what would usually be an honor – number two in the nation – is in reality a tragic judgment on our public health system, but one private non-profit is promoting decision making that will move the state to the bottom of the list.

Between 2001 and 2009, the rate of syphilis steadily climbed from 2.1 to 4.6 infections per 100,000 people and has remained at 4.5 or 4.6 up through the latest report, 2012.

First stage syphilis on the lip.

First stage syphilis on the lip.

California’s rate of syphilis stands at twice that – 9.3 per 100,000 people. Yippee.

We have written many items on STDs and syphilis, HIV and meningitis, but the increase in syphilis here in California is once again scary, as it was a dozen years ago.

The California Department of Public Health recently reported that the rate of sexually transmitted infections significantly increased in California last year, with most cases reportedly affecting younger women.

The press release from the state shows that there were about 216,000 reported cases of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STI)s in California in 2013, up 13 to 15 percent for gonorrhea and syphilis.

We have mentioned a recent study by the Los Angeles LGBT Center that stated, “Men who use smart apps such as Grindr are 25 percent more likely to be affected with gonorrhea and 37 percent with chlamydia.”

A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) -sponsored 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) showed that, despite a decrease in usage from ten years ago, 59 percent of young people still report using condoms.

On the tongue.

Syphilis on the tongue.

A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) -sponsored 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) showed that, despite a decrease in usage from ten years ago, 59 percent of young people still report using condoms.

A study just completed for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), studying the effectiveness of its social marketing efforts found that men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) reported using condoms nearly 64 percent of the time.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sponsored 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) showed that, despite a decrease in usage from ten years ago, 59 percent of young people still report using condoms.

Despite a recent push by the CDC to encourage high-risk individuals to take a daily AIDS treatment tablet as a form of possible HIV prevention in a procedure known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), condoms remain the most popular, and proven effective barrier protection to prevent transmission of not only HIV, but syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea.

To remind people that condoms can stop syphilis, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is raising awareness about the prevalence of syphilis, its drastic medical impacts, and only way to completely avoid infection: condom use and routine STD testing.

The nonprofit’s awareness campaign launches today with a billboard that reads “California: #2 in Syphilis” which will be appearing around Los Angeles touting the un-enviable burden California bears with the second-highest syphilis rate of all 50 states.


The press release says that “The billboard – which is a clear homage to the California flag, but with its iconic Grizzly bear smacking a paw to its forehead in a moment of “D’oh!” – highlights the worrisome increase in the California syphilis rate over the past year.”

AHF provides syphilis testing and treatment in seven states throughout the U.S., all of which are facing heavy syphilis burdens. Florida, which boasts the greatest number of Wellness Center sites nationwide with six throughout the state, saw 4,470 cases of syphilis diagnosed at varying stages – primary/secondary (also known as infectious) syphilis, early latent syphilis, and late latent syphilis – throughout 2012, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Meanwhile, California, home to four AHF Wellness Centers that treat STDs, reported 2,953 cases of primary, secondary, and congenital syphilis, which is when a child is born with syphilis due to its mother’s undiagnosed or untreated infection.

The other five states where AHF offers services are also facing high rates of syphilis, with New York and Texas both reporting 6.3 infections per 100,000 people in the CDC’s 2012 report, and Ohio recording a rate of 3.7 per 100,000.

uptickLouisiana, where AHF has a Wellness Center in Baton Rouge, has a statewide rate of 7.4 in addition to carrying the nation’s highest burden of congenital syphilis with 49.3 cases diagnosed per 100,000 live births in 2012, nearly seven times the national rate of 7.8 that year.

Finally, Mississippi, where the statewide rate is 5.9 per 100,000 population and where more than half of the primary and secondary syphilis cases in 2012 affected young people between the ages of 15-24.

The drumbeat for Truvada as PrEP, or a pill that could prevent the spread of HIV with daily use, misleads many to believe they can safely forego condom use, says AHF, and the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections nationwide reflect the continued need for comprehensive prevention methods.

The Foundation has expressed public concern that people incorrectly using the new prevention strategy – which is only effective if used in conjunction with condoms and HIV/STD testing, according to FDA, CDC and WHO recommendations – could lead to a continued rise in rates of syphilis, which can be a devastating and even deadly disease if left untreated.

“There is no pill to prevent syphilis, or gonorrhea or any other sexually transmitted infection besides HIV,” said MichaelWeinstein, President of AHF. “These infections spread easily and can be detrimental to public health if they are not mitigated by responsible health practices like regular condom use, which is still required for Truvada as PrEP to be effective anyway.

“Our goal with this campaign is that people will be driven to contribute to decreasing these rates by preventing transmission in their own lives, and also to remind people that syphilis is a serious health risk that they need to be tested for to catch it before it causes significant damage to their organs.”