Riverside County is confirming a sizable outbreak of syphilis in the Coachella Valley, specifically in and around Palm Springs, with the majority of the cases being men who have sex with men. As a result, local medical personnel are pushing for increased testing and treatment in the affected areas.
The area is seeing ten times the national average in cases of syphilis, and doctors are puzzled as to why this is.
We don’t have any answers,” said Marcella Herrera-Carpenter, the program coordinator for the Riverside University Health System. “We have been dealing with this for a number of years and essentially we need to start thinking outside the box.”
Syphilis is usually transmitted through unprotected sexual contact as well as blood, semen, and shared needles. When it initially develops, people may experience sores on the genitals, rectum, or mouth, leading to a rash. This can then develop into a number of other conditions, including brain and other organ damage, including blindness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that a lot of the damage caused by syphilis is irreversible. The disease can be treated, however, especially if caught early.
One doctor, Dr. Christopher Foltz, thinks the increase in the use of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which reduces the transmission of HIV, may play a part. Dr. Foltz works with the Desert AIDS Project.
“The reason why I think a lot of the surge with the syphilis outbreak is because of PrEP people are often using PrEP as a way to not use condoms so that is increasing the incidents of all STDs,” said Dr. Foltz.
Dr. Foltz’s idea is conjecture, however. No scientific studies have yet proven a connection between a higher chance to contract a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis and PrEP use. The medicine is almost 100% effective in preventing HIV infection.
Herrera-Carpenter suggests vigilance, saying that the best path to prevention is “Knowing who our partners are, using protection, limiting those partners and making sure that everybody is getting a (STD) check-up.”