Wake County

Wake County sees record number of syphilis cases

Wake County is reaching new heights in the health field, and not in a good way.

Wake in 2015 set a new record high for syphilis rates and cases, according to the county’s Health Services Department, which recently released its annual report on communicable diseases. 2015 was the last year available.

Wake documented 245 cases of syphilis then, just one year after recording a high of 178 cases in 2014.

Rates of syphilis and other STDs are on the rise nationwide. Experts say it’s partially because of a rise in Internet dating and heroin use, said Sue Lynn Ledford, director of Wake’s public health department.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can initially cause sores, then pose life-threatening problems if left untreated. In 2015, Wake had 24 cases for every 100,000 people, up from a rate of 7.5 in 2011 and 8.5 in 2012.

The number of recorded gonorrhea cases rose to 1,360 in 2015 from 1,265 in 2014. Despite the increase in cases, the gonorrhea rate of 132 cases for every 100,000 remained lower than the rate of 140 in 2012.

Documented chlamydia cases also rose to 4,966 in 2015, up from 4,566 in 2014.

While Wake’s number of chlamydia and gonorrhea cases have remained high in recent years, the rates per 100,000 people are significantly lower than other North Carolina counties.

Wake’s chlamydia rate was 484 per 100,000. The statewide rate was 577.

Cumberland County, home of Fayetteville, had the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among North Carolina’s six largest counties.

The growing popularity of Internet dating makes the diseases hard to contain, Ledford said. People from across the state and nation can meet online, form a connection quickly and travel to meet each other.

“In the past we could contain things geographically. We could say ‘OK, we have an outbreak in North Raleigh or South Raleigh’ and hone in on those places,” Ledford said. “Now with the new dynamics of people hooking up through social media ... there’s no single point of contact where you can go and focus on prevention efforts.”

In response, Wake in October 2015 started sending a public health nurse to offer STD testing at the local LGBT Center in downtown Raleigh. Rates of STDs are historically higher in gay men, she said.

“Preliminary anecdotal data from the nurse suggests that the LGBT community feels comfortable being tested and treated for STDs in a place they are familiar with and at times that are convenient for them,” the health report says.

Wake also has been sharing information and educational materials to medical providers and has been providing free condoms at 43 sites across the county, from beauty salons to tattoo parlors.

Ledford says she plans to ask the Wake County Board of Commissioners for extra funding when the board sets its budget for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

She said the county has now recorded more than 150 cases of the Zika virus, which can cause a fever and birth defects for the children of women who are infected.

Ledford declined to offer specifics of her budget request until she shares them with county commissioners.

“It’s been one emergent disease after another,” she said. “We’ve pretty much stayed the same with staffing for several years, but the trends have not slowed down.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht