Wake County

Wake health officials: online hookups contributing to rise in syphilis cases

Wake County health officials say social networking apps are partly to blame for a sharp increase in syphillis cases.
Wake County health officials say social networking apps are partly to blame for a sharp increase in syphillis cases. AP

The number of reported syphilis cases is on the rise in North Carolina, and Wake County health officials say social networking websites are partly to blame.

Across the state, 1,113 early syphilis infections were diagnosed in 2014 – a 62 percent increase from the prior year, when 688 cases were reported, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Wake saw 233 reported cases of syphilis last year, marking a 15-year high. In 2014, the county saw 171 cases, according to county data.

When patients who contracted syphilis were interviewed in Wake County, many said they met their partner online, said Sue Lynn Ledford, Wake’s public health division director.

“People are hooking up with strangers they have most often met through social media, and that is really increasing the rate of transmission,” she said.

Other Triangle counties have also seen increases in syphilis cases. In Durham County, there were 121 reported cases in 2015, up from 46 in 2013. Orange County had 13 reported cases in 2015, compared to five in 2013. Johnston County had 19 reported cases in 2015 and one case in 2013.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that causes skin rashes and sores most commonly in the genital area. The disease can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy.

The most common treatment is penicillin, but if the bacteria goes untreated, patients can eventually go blind, become paralyzed, develop dementia or die.

Most of the recent syphilis cases occurred in men who said they had been engaging in sexual activity with other men, said Arlene Sena, medical director for the Durham County Department of Public Health and an associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine.

Patients who have an STD, including syphilis, are at a higher risk of testing positive for HIV in the future, health officials say.

More than 40 percent of males with early syphilis statewide also have HIV, Sena said. In Wake County, the number is higher – 52 percent, according to Ledford.

“What we’re concerned about in public health is an increase of early stage syphilis and the co-infection of HIV,” Sena said.

In Wake and Durham counties, health officials are trying to combat the rise in syphilis cases through awareness, outreach and education, both on social media and at facilities.

Ledford said anyone who meets people online should practice safe sex and avoid anonymous hookups.

“And if you have had unprotected sex, you need to be tested,” she said.

Cioffi: 919-829-4802; @ReporterCioffi

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