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ADH reports spike in syphilis cases amongst Arkansans

Arkansas and Oklahoma health departments are reporting a spike in syphilis infections, especially in women.

ARKANSAS, USA — Arkansas is seeing a statewide increase in the number of syphilis cases, according to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH). Arkansas is not the only state seeing the rise in syphilis cases with Oklahoma seeing an increase as well.

"We almost had syphilis eradicated and it has kind of come back with a vengeance," said Will Andrews, public information officer with the Oklahoma State Department Health's (OSDH) Sexual Health 

According to the ADH, from 2017-2021 there was an overall increase of 164% (from 562 to 1,482) in early cases and a 285% increase (from 155 to 597) among women ages 15-44. 

The sexually transmitted infection can cause serious health problems if it isn't treated. 

Syphilis is divided into four clinical stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. The ADH says there are different signs and symptoms associated with each stage, ranging from open sores, rash, and flu-like symptoms to long-term damage to the heart, brain and other organs. 

The health department says the infection is especially concerning in pregnant women who may pass it to their baby during pregnancy through congenital syphilis, which can lead to stillbirth, preterm delivery and other congenital abnormalities. 

“We encourage women to be tested three times during pregnancy,” Andrews said. “At their first prenatal visit, again when they come to give birth, and then when the child is born."

Health officials say congenital syphilis can be preventable by early detection and appropriate treatment prior to a baby's delivery. 

According to the ADH, Arkansas saw a 254% increase (from 13 to 46) in congenital syphilis cases from 2017 to 2021, and during this timeframe, nine babies died before birth, with 55% (five) occurring in 2021. 

The Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) says testing is also important when it comes to HIV. Pregnant women can pass it on to newborns which can cause neurological disorders, blindness, deafness, bone deformities and more. According to the CDC, Arkansas and Oklahoma are in the top seven states for HIV infections, especially among rural areas.

OSDH is also encouraging HIV testing, which can be passed down to newborns as well. The OSDH is combating it by making self-tests more available.

“It’s actually a very simple treatment,” Andrews said. “We can treat syphilis, we just have to identify it first."

Health officials are asking people to first get tested, but it’s a step Andrews says many never take because they usually don't know they have the disease. Symptoms include open sores, rash, and flu-like symptoms to long-term damage to the heart, brain, and other organs. 

Those who think they might have the infection can get a test from a healthcare provider or the nearest ADH Local Health Unit and should notify partners immediately if infected. The State of Arkansas requires all pregnant women to be tested at the first prenatal care visit and third trimester (between 28-32 weeks gestation). Testing at delivery is required if not done during the pregnancy. Syphilis can be treated using a medication prescribed by a healthcare provider and a person can be re-infected after treatment.

Both Arkansas and Oklahoma say local department of health units offer free STD and STI testing and ask that you don’t hesitate to come.

Click here to learn more about syphilis infection, prevention and treatment.

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