Health officials warn of jump in syphilis, HIV infection rates

State health officials warned last week that an outbreak of syphilis infections among men who have sex with men will likely worsen and said they also anticipate a jump in HIV infection rates.

Seventeen syphilis cases have been reported to the Minnesota Department of Health since January, an eight-fold leap from the two cases reported in that period last year.

“It’s still spreading, and there are additional people under investigation,” said Harry Hull, Minnesota’s state epidemiologist. “This could just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Rates for heterosexuals are consistent, with approximately 24 cases reported this year.

Approximately half of the 17 syphilis-infected men also tested positive for HIV, Hull said. The risk of HIV infection is two to five times as high in individuals infected with syphilis, he said.

Officials said the reports indicate an increase in unsafe sexual behavior and said men in the risk group should use condoms and get tested for syphilis. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics.

Hull said people do not always realize they have syphilis, because its symptoms are mild. The first sign is usually a painless sore which appears on the genital area, anus, mouth or throat.

If untreated, the sore can develop into a rash, spreading anywhere on the body. Syphilis is spread through direct contact with the sore or rash, usually during unprotected oral, anal and vaginal sex.

Secondary symptoms include fever, headache, muscle ache, fatigue or swollen lymph glands, Hull said. Left untreated, syphilis can lead to blindness, paralysis, heart problems, dementia and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

– Jessica Thompson