Cases in Washington, San Francisco and possibly L.A. Raise Alarm, Demand Action
Since December, as many as 15 cases of the disease—which has led to blindness in several individuals—have been reported in men who have sex with men in Washington State (6 cases, 2 blinded) and San Francisco (7 cases) as well as two suspected cases found in Los Angeles County that are under investigation.
LOS ANGELES (March 6, 2014) Since December 2014, as many as 15 cases of ocular syphilis—a sexually transmitted disease which has led to blindness in several of the individuals—have been reported in men who have sex with men on the West Coast. Confirmed cases in Washington State, San Francisco as well as two suspected cases found in Los Angeles that are currently under investigation are raising alarm among public health officials, community care providers and prevention specialists.
In December and January, Washington State health officials reported six people diagnosed with ocular syphilis—including two who have gone blind—according to recent Washington Department of Health public warnings and news articles. The Seattle Times and Outbreak News Today reported in late January that since mid-December 2014, four cases were reported in Seattle’s King County, including three men who have sex with men (MSM). Three of the cases were also identified as HIV-positive.
On February 20th, the San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own Health Advisory on ocular syphilis. The advisory noted that, “Since December 2014, seven cases of ocular syphilis have been reported in San Francisco. Five of the affected individuals were men who have sex with men and six were HIV-infected.” The San Francisco advisory also noted, “Several of the cases have resulted in a significant and permanent decline in visual acuity.”
Yesterday (March 5), the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LAC DPH) issued an Advisory on ocular syphilis, noting that, “While no cluster [of cases] has been identified in Los Angeles County, two independent cases of possible ocular syphilis are currently under investigation.”
“These new cases of ocular syphilis highlight the importance of ongoing, regular check-ups for sexually-active individuals who feel they may be at risk, particularly men who have sex with men,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “We call on the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to step up and do more to alert and educate medical providers about ocular syphilis. County officials should also develop a strategic plan for reducing syphilis cases, including putting out a monthly update to the media as well as running the monthly update as an advertisement in LGBT publications to educate the public.”
Ocular syphilis is typically a complication of primary or secondary syphilis and some strains of Treponema pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis, may be more likely to cause eye or central-nervous-system disease.
A recent CDC STD surveillance report found that California’s syphilis rate was second in the U.S. only to Georgia.
In November, AHF launched a targeted billboard campaign in Los Angeles County, which the CDC also named in its most recent report as having the highest number of primary and secondary syphilis cases of any county in the nation. The billboards featured a volcanic landscape emblazoned with the warning “Syphilis Explosion” and promoted www.freeSTDcheck.org, where the public can find locations to access free STD testing and affordable care for the treatment of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis through AHF. AHF recently released an online video to complement the billboards that can be viewed below: