Syphilis rates climbed by over 2,000% in Sedgwick County in the last decade

We look at what’s fueled the trend and how you can protect yourself.

by Sawyer Belair

For the first dozen-plus years of this century, syphilis was a rarity in Sedgwick County.

Fewer than one of every 100,000 residents had the sexually transmitted disease.

But in the last decade — mirroring a national trend made worse by the isolation and shifting behaviors spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic — the rate has skyrocketed to infections in more than 17 out of 100,000 residents, a 2,100% jump.

Among six counties in neighboring states with populations between 350,000 and 700,000, Sedgwick ranked third, just above Douglas County, Nebraska (16.1 per 100,000), home to Omaha. The highest rate of those midsized metropolitan areas appears in Pulaski County, Arkansas, which encompasses the state’s capital of Little Rock.

Sedgwick County ranked 12th among Kansas counties that provided syphilis data to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Christine Steward, Sedgwick County’s deputy health director, said those numbers may reflect underreporting in many rural counties that have fewer health care providers, although more densely populated areas tend to have higher transmission rates.

Across the nation, primary and secondary syphilis — primary syphilis is defined as an infection with mild symptoms, secondary syphilis refers to more advanced and severe cases — jumped significantly during the pandemic. CDC statistics show syphilis rates rose 28% from 2020 to 2021. In Sedgwick County, the rate nearly doubled.

Steward said that the sharp rise in the numbers likely reflects that cases were underreported early in the pandemic. Still, the 2021 figure is 55% higher than what the county recorded in 2019 before the pandemic hit.

Steward said that complex factors drove the increase of syphilis, but that an increase of sexual encounters following the advent of dating apps could be a factor. That’s partially backed up by some research.

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, sees little evidence suggesting an increase in sexual encounters in recent years.

Instead, he cited unsafe sexual encounters in the ongoing opioid epidemic, less funding for sexually transmitted disease prevention and a recent diversion of STD prevention resources toward managing the pandemic.

“Every warm body was redirected to COVID,” Klausner said. “Suddenly, you really had an absence of effective public health activity.”

Steward said county health officials are trying to raise awareness about the danger of STDs even as they try to minimize the stigma around things like syphilis that could discourage people from seeking treatment or informing their sexual partners of the risk.

“Some people also think that syphilis might be like an ancient disease,” she said. “Some people might hesitate to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about.”

Here’s what Steward recommends to people to protect themselves.

  • Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of syphilis. Since many primary lesions in the vagina and rectum go unnoticed, consistent condom use for vaginal and anal intercourse can reduce the risk of syphilis.
  • The surest way to avoid transmission of syphilis while being sexually active is to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has tested negative for the bacteria.

She also noted that the following groups should consider getting tested:

  • Pregnant women (all at the first prenatal visit and those at risk at the beginning of third trimester and at delivery)
  • Sexually active men who have sex with men
  • Those living with HIV who are sexually active
  • Anyone taking PrEP for HIV prevention

A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Sawyer Belair is a recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who found his calling in journalism after spending his first two years of college studying physics and mathematics. Since then, he’s worked as a reporter at the UNL student-run Daily Nebraskan, Norfolk (NE) Daily News and, most recently, the Lincoln Journal Star. Beyond his passion for weaving compelling data with human-centric storytelling, Sawyer is an avid enjoyer of science fiction, the outdoors and thinking way too hard about the nature of human existence.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon