On Tuesday, community leaders will join healthcare providers, business owners, and concerned citizens will convene a meeting in Palm Springs to address the spike in syphilis in the Coachella Valley. Health officials say the number of confirmed cases in some areas is ten times higher than the national average. Most affected are men who have sex with men (MSM), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the Riverside County Department of Public Health reports the number of babies born with the disease has increased tenfold, as well, compared with numbers from three years ago.
“We do have a syphilis outbreak happening right now,” Marcella Herrera-Carpenter program coordinator for the Riverside University Health System told KMIR.
The first meeting of the newly formed Riverside County Syphilis Community Collaborative will be held at 1:30 PM at the Demuth Community Center in Palm Springs.
Health officials say they have fought the rise in syphilis cases for several years, but with mixed results. “We need to start thinking outside the box,” said Herrera-Carpenter. Officials hope the inclusion in the Collaborative of stakeholders who are not government researchers will allow them to break through the silos that often slow and stymie progress.
Jose Arballo, senior public information officer at the Riverside Health Department, told the Los Angeles Blade that the Collaborative was formed in part thanks to the leadership of Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez. “When he met with the administrators at Public Health, there was a report and the numbers came out and he was concerned about the high numbers,” said Arballo. Perez suggested a meeting of community leaders and stakeholders to find new approaches to better combat the problem.
Arballo said the agency is looking for suggestions in Tuesday’s meeting that might help fill gaps in the administration of health services, or put a new focus on changing patient behavior.
“We’re really looking for anything people have in the way of ideas,” Arballo said, as well as some answers to, “How do we get the messaging out there to people we’re trying to target?” The best communication strategies will likely vary, he explained, according to the different populations of patients with whom the agency hopes to engage.
Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics, but the CDC warns damage caused by the infection is irreversible. Different signs and symptoms are associated with each of the three stages of syphilis, typically beginning with painless sores that develop at the original site of infection on or around the penis, around the anus, or in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. Since the disease is spread by contact with the sore(s) as would occur through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex, officials recommend condoms as a means of prevention.
Dr. Christopher Foltz, who works with the Desert AIDS Project, told KMIR that MSM who are taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PReP, Truvada) to reduce their risk of contracting HIV should also use condoms to help guard against diseases like syphilis.
“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,” Foltz said.
Syphilis can be transmitted in-utero. Forty percent of babies born to mothers who have the disease but do not receive treatment are either stillborn or live for only a short time after they are delivered. If they do survive, they will live with debilitating, permanent disabilities including blindness, deafness, and severe damage to teeth, bones, and joints.
As the Riverside community looks for solutions to curb the spike in syphilis, officials recommend regular testing for all sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), along with condom use.