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Health Officials Urge Testing As Syphilis Rate Skyrockets In Duval County

emtyage via Flickr

The rate of syphilis infection has risen 130 percent in Duval County over the past three years to the highest infection rate the county has seen in two decades. Rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are also on the rise.

Health officials say the sexually transmitted bacterial syphilis infection is becoming more prevalent among straight people and women – including many pregnant women, who are passing it down to their unborn babies.

Just 151 people caught it in Duval County in 2012, compared with 394 last year, according to the state’s preliminary count.

Lakisha Cohen is the Florida Health Department’s STD program manager for Northeast Florida. She says technology is partly responsible for the resurgence of the disease nationwide.

“We’re seeing an increased usage of dating apps, Facebook, Tinder, Grindr, Adam4Adam,” she said. “It’s become easier for people to find someone to have sex with.”

And she says many people don’t realize they’ve caught syphilis because it isn’t painful, at least at first. Men might notice a sore at the site of infection, and men and women might see rashes on their hands, feet or stomach, as well as swollen lymph nodes or hair loss.  Those symptoms will subside as the disease enters a latent stage, which happens a year after infection, she said.

Eventually, syphilis can cause cognitive and motor impairment, vision loss and even death.  But Cohen said it’s very treatable, even in late stages.

Health officials are urging people to use condoms with every new partner, as well as to get screened for all STDs if they’re unsure of their status. They’ve also written letters to area OB-GYNs to notify them it’s becoming more of an issue in the community and to remind them to screen pregnant women.

At the same time, Jacksonville’s advocacy group for young LGBT people — JASMYN — is welcoming a recent funding boost from the national Centers for Disease Control.

The organization will receive more than $350,000 year to bolster its STD testing and education efforts.

The CDC award is one of three made in Florida and one of 30 grants handed out across the country.

In conjunction with the Duval County Department of Health, JASMYN officials say the grant will help expand HIV testing, screening for other sexually transmitted diseases and treatment for those affected, including medication and counseling.

County health officials will be at JASMYN’s block party Friday between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. offering free STD testing and consultation. Jasmyn is on Peninsular Place in Riverside.

It’s one of the county’s free screening events in April in observance of National STD Awareness Month.

Photoused under Creative Commons license

Contact Jessica Palombo at 904-358-6315, or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP
Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.