Minnesota syphilis rates up 67 percent from ’01 to ’02

Eighty-two new syphilis cases were reported in 2002, an increase of 33 from 2001.

Chris Kallal

A rise in Minnesota’s syphilis rate has brought new focus to the disease at the University.

Minnesota saw a 67 percent increase in the number of new cases of syphilis from 2001 to 2002, Nicoline Collins of the Minnesota Department of Health said. In 2002 82 new cases were reported, up from 49 in 2001.

Although the total number of people infected with syphilis are low compared to other sexually transmitted infections, the sudden rise has led to a renewed interest in combating the disease, Collins said.

Boynton Health Service plans to restart efforts to track the number of syphilis cases on campus.

“We stopped asking about syphilis in the mid-’90s,” Boynton Health Service director Ed Ehlinger said. “But we will be surveying for it again this spring because we have seen another bump up in the numbers.”

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection with symptoms including rashes, sores and muscle aches. Eventually, if untreated, the disease can cause damage to internal organs, as well as paralysis and dementia.

There were 56 new cases of syphilis among gay men in

Minnesota in 2002, compared with five the year before. Of those who reported new cases, 88 percent were white and almost half were HIV-positive.

“(Syphilis) is a big problem in Minneapolis and among HIV-positive individuals,” Ehlinger said. “It is not a big problem on this campus.”

At the University, health services focus more on chlamydia and gonorrhea, Collins said. Rates of infection for both these diseases increased among college students in 2002, she said.

“Right now (students) are not really at risk,” Collins said. “But we know that students are having unprotected sex, and, if introduced, syphilis could become a big problem.”

Collins said the disease was thought to be under control after three years of fewer than one case per year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. But men began reporting syphilis more frequently in 2001, and the trend continued in 2002.

According to Boynton, no one at the University has reported a case of syphilis in two years. However, that does not mean students should not be concerned about the disease, Ehlinger said.

“Syphilis rates can quickly increase among populations that have unprotected sex,” Ehlinger said. “We are concerned about these diseases, especially among the younger end of the age range.”

The University provides services through Boynton for those infected with sexually transmitted infections. The state’s Health Department and Boynton say to most effectively prevent infection, students should practice safe sex.

Syphilis is spread mainly by sexual contact and is caused by a bacterium. The disease can be treated with a single shot of penicillin, but without treatment, it can have serious health consequences.

College of Liberal Arts junior Alyssa Geronsin said she did not think syphilis was a problem.

“I don’t know anyone who has it,” she said. “It’s kind of like AIDS – I just don’t really think about it affecting me.”