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Vt. issues alert on syphilis infections

State had 9 cases reported last year Increase reflects national trend

Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Rathke
Associated Press / January 3, 2008

MONTPELIER - The Vermont Health Department issued a warning yesterday about a resurgence of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, which is being spread mostly among men.

Vermont had nine reported cases last year, up from three in 2006 and one in 2005.

The main reason is a rise in the disease among men who have sex with men, reflecting a national trend, Health Department officials said.

"The key here is that this infection has found its way into Vermont and it's being spread among sexually active men who have sex with men here in Vermont," said Dr. Cortland Lohff, the state's epidemiologist.

In past cases, people have acquired the infection outside Vermont, Lohff said.

Syphilis, a potentially deadly disease that first shows up as a painless genital sore, can be spread to others during sex. Because the sores may go unnoticed, the disease is often spread unknowingly.

If caught early, syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, syphilis can cause severe complications, infecting the brain, nervous system, and heart, Lohff said.

The infection also increases the risk of contracting HIV, he said.

Hannah Hauser, codirector of health and wellness for the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center in Burlington, said the rising numbers in Vermont show that people are reporting the disease and getting help.

But Dr. Stuart Berman, head of epidemiology and the surveillance branch of the Division of STD Prevention at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the national syphilis trend "a significant public health concern."

The number of US cases increased for the sixth consecutive year in 2006, from 2.9 cases per 100,000 people a year earlier to 3.3 per 100,000, a nearly 14 percent increase, according to the CDC.

About 9,800 cases of the most contagious forms of syphilis were reported in 2006, up from about 8,700 in 2005.

The CDC estimates that men who have sex with men accounted for 64 percent of the syphilis cases in the United States in 2006.

Data suggest an increase in sexual risk taking among some groups of men who have sex with men, which can help contribute to the spread of syphilis, Berman said.

Risk taking may be driven by "prevention fatigue, substance abuse, and the use of the Internet to find sex partners," he said.

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