Houston Health Crisis: How To Protect From Syphilis Outbreak

Clarence Walker

The Christmas season is almost in full swing as the city of Houston remains committed to lowering the high statistics of syphilis. Syphilis is a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD).

During the sweltering summer months in the Bayou City the Houston Health Department reported a syphilis outbreak happened in the city, with a twelvefold spike in female cases and a ninefold increase in congenital cases.

Despite these rising numbers, STDs can be prevented if you know the warning signals, take precautions, and get tested regularly, officials say.

According to the data, the number of new infections increased by 57% between 2019 (with 1,845 cases) and 2022 (2,905 cases). There has been an increase in the number of reported cases of STDs across the country, including this one. The increase in reported cases of syphilis in the United States from 2020 to 2021 was described as "alarming" by health officials.

Texas leads the nation in babies born with syphilis (congenital syphilis), reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Locally, syphilis cases in Houston have increased 128% since 2019, and numbers are the highest ever nationally in more than 70 years.

The City Health Department Recommends Syphilis Testing For

  • Pregnant women at their initial prenatal visit, third trimester, and delivery (required by state law),
  • People who have had unprotected sex
  • Men with anonymous sex partners
  • People with multiple sex partners
  • People recently diagnosed with any other sexually transmitted disease such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia, or HIV.

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that, while curable, can have devastating consequences if left untreated. There are distinct phases during the progression of the infection. Various indications and symptoms may be present at each level.

In the initial phase of syphilis, one or many sores appear at the site of initial infection. These sores are often spherical, solid, and painless and can remain for weeks. The sores may heal, but the condition still needs therapy.

The second stage involves the appearance of a rash anywhere on the body. The subsequent latent period, during which the infection remains dormant, but shows no outward signs of activity, can linger for years without treatment.

This final phase is uncommon, but still can cause extensive injury to vital organs, bones, and joints.

Syphilis, if not treated in pregnant women, can cause stillbirths and birth defects.

{Link to Channel 2 News TV Story Discussing Skyrocketing Syphilis in Houston}

Billboard Advertising Danger of Syphilis. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Billboard Advertising Danger of Syphilis. Thousands of Houston-Harris County Residents Suffered Massive Outbreak of Syphilis During Summer-Fall Season. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

The University of Texas GYN Specialist Irene Stafford

"One-fourth of the nation's syphilis cases come from Texas," said Irene Stafford, MD, OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine specialist with UT Physicians. Stafford has always had a special interest in perinatal infectious disease, specifically syphilis, because of its effects on fetuses and newborns. If physicians can get patients screened for syphilis and treated in a timely manner, Stafford said it will help prevent congenital syphilis.

"The sooner a pregnant woman can get tested and treated, the more likely we are to have a completely treated woman, and the baby will not be impacted at all," said Stafford, associate professor in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UT Health Houston. "People need to realize there is a lot of syphilis in our community right now, and it's all hands on deck."

Stafford noted that like other STDs syphilis disproportionately affects minority, underserved populations due to correlating factors such as a high immigrant population, a lack of nearby healthcare clinics, and the closure of those clinics as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STDS) are on the rise not only among minority, underprivileged populations but also among adolescents.

Safeguarding Yourself

First and foremost, doctors and the CDC want you to know that syphilis is not selective. According to Healthline, when used properly, external condoms prevent 98 percent of STIs and infections. However, this number reduces to 85 percent with more typical use. Ensuring it's used right is crucial if you want a higher success rate.

Protection relies heavily on testing as well. You should be open with your doctor about your sexual history and inquire if you need to be tested for syphilis and other STDs.

Antibiotics can be used for treatment, but they won't be able to restore any damage that has already occurred. Pregnant women need to use extra caution when seeking medical care.

Syphilis testing is mandated three times for pregnant women in California: twice during pregnancy and once during birth. There are no consequences for doctors who do not conduct adequate testing, but experts say many in the medical field either ignore or are unaware of the state's regulations.

The Houston Health Department will send more HIV/STD, mobile clinics in high-risk areas and cancel all costs for STD treatment at its health centers. On their website, you can get a complete directory of all the locations. Those interested in locating the nearest mobile clinic can do so by dialing the office hotline at 832-393-5010.

Misconceptions About Syphilis

People shouldn't worry about catching syphilis through casual contact, while measures should be taken. It is not possible to catch syphilis from touching a public toilet or doorknob, swimming in a public pool or hot tub, or eating from the same plates and silverware.

Why More Cases Now?

There are several causes behind the rise in sexually transmitted diseases across the United States. During the first year of the pandemic, there was a rise in the number of cases of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. According to the CDC, the increase in the rate may be due to more persons seeking testing after stay-home orders were withdrawn.

Meanwhile, the number of available medical facilities decreased, making it more likely that someone with an STD would be untreated for a longer length of time.

Shortly before the epidemic, however, rising STD rates were a major concern. Medical specialists said a lack of sexual health awareness and societal barriers to accessing healthcare have also played a role. Last year was the first time that the Texas State Board of Education modified the health curriculum for middle and high school students to include discussions of contraception and STDs.

Stafford encourages sexual health to be a priority for every health visit. It's not any less important than cholesterol or diabetes, she said. Physicians need to promote screening for STIs annually to get ahead of the problem. "We keep the fight going because this infection is really a challenge, mainly because it's quiet," Stafford said. "It doesn't hurt. It doesn't burn. The majority of my patients don't even know they have it, because it's quiet, it's silent."

Information on testing sites and syphilis is available by calling the department's HIV/STD information hotline at 832-393-5010.

Reporter Clarence Walker can be reached at [email protected]

By Clarence Walker
Clarence Walker Jr. is a Houston-based Senior Reporter and Associate Editor for HoustonNewsToday. Houston Watch | Substack Politics, Policy, Political News - POLITICO Houston Public Media – Houston Public Media is a non-profit organization broadcasting through a multi-media platform to deliver content with a focus Community Impact | News Associated Press News: Breaking News, Latest Headlines and Videos | AP News Business News Daily: Small Business Solutions & Inspiration - BusinessNewsDaily.com

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