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Columbus health officials warn of huge increase in syphilis cases

Columbus Public Health on Parsons Avenue.
file photo

Columbus Health officials are warning of a huge increase in syphyllis cases that mirrors a national trend.

Columbus Public Health recorded 613 syphilis cases in 2019. Last year, the total spiked to around 1,400 cases. In that same time frame, syphilis cases in Columbus women tripled to 376.

Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said that's led to a surge in congenital syphilis—that is, infants born with the disease, which can result in a host of health and neurological issues in children.

Dr. Roberts suspects much of the trend is driven by substance use.

"People, particularly who are trading drugs for sex or sex acts, that is the particular driver in our female clients," she said.

Roberts said health care reprioritization during the pandemic likely didn't help, either.

"Maybe during the pandemic, treatment was harder to come by in some parts of our community... or health care for non-COVID things just didn't become a priority," she said.

Left untreated, syphilis can lead to neurological problems in adults as well.

"There are people who have lost their vision because of syphilis. There are people who have gait problems or walking issues because of syphilis. So there's something called neurosyphilis, that can impact you, you can lose memory," Roberts said.

Roberts urges anyone who is sexually active to take their health seriously, use protection, and get tested for the disease if they have symptoms, such as a rash.

"Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection, just like gonorrhea and chlamydia. It does not discriminate male or female, Black or white," Roberts said. "And if you are sexually active, I highly encourage you to use their protective measures to protect yourself and the person you're having sex with from infectious diseases."

Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show syphilis cases nationally spiked 27% to over 171,000 in 2021.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.