The Vermont Department of Health is keeping a close eye on syphilis, after the Centers for Disease Control has told states of upticks in the sexually-transmitted bacterial infections across the country. The vast majority of new infections are in men who have sex with men, according to the CDC.
"Nationally, we are starting to see more cases of syphilis," said Patsy Kelso, the state epidemiologist for the Vermont Health Department. "It might be something we could start to see here, and we’ll keep an eye on it."
Syphilis often begins with painless sores in the location where the infection entered your body, the CDC explained. In more advanced stages of the infection, sores or rashes can appear on other parts of the body, along with symptoms like headaches and fatigue. Late stages of the disease may include very serious symptoms like blindness, numbness, and even organ damage that can lead to death, according to the CDC.
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While syphilis can become very serious, it can also be treated with an antibiotic. The CDC noted treatment will not reverse damage done by the infection. A blood test may be used to detect syphilis, according to the CDC.
Kelso said less than halfway through 2015, there have been eight syphilis cases reported so far in Vermont. The small state tends to see one to 12 cases a year, Kelso told New England Cable News.
"We are going to see blips like that," Kelso noted. "We can't tell yet whether, with eight cases to date this year, if we're seeing more cases. It's too early to say that."
In the state of Rhode Island, the increases are more significant. From 2013 to 2014, there was an increase in syphilis infections of 79 percent, according to The Rhode Island Department of Health. In Rhode Island, young people and minorities were among those most seriously affected.
The Rhode Island Department of Health pointed to smartphone apps that can be used to arrange casual, even anonymous sex, as one example of a high-risk behavior that could be contributing to the increase in infections. Other high-risk behaviors included having multiple partners, having sex while drunk or high, and not using condoms.
Rhode Island reported gonorrhea cases increased by thirty percent from 2013 to 2014, and the number of newly-identified HIV cases increased by nearly 33 percent, according to the data released this week.
"These new data underscore the importance of encouraging young people to begin talking to a doctor, nurse, or health educator about sexual health before becoming sexually active and especially after becoming sexually active," Rosemary Reilly-Chammat, an HIV and AIDS sexuality specialist said in a news release from the Rhode Island Department of Health. "It's never too early to learn about making HIV and STD testing part of routine healthcare. Doctors and nurses are trained to discuss sensitive topics like sex, and conversations with them are confidential. Health educators at schools or community health centers are great resources, too."
Rhode Island noted its sexually-transmitted infection increases follow a national trend. Increases have also been attributed to better testing by providers, state health officials said.
At the Pride Center of Vermont in Burlington, which offers safer sex advice and urges disease testing, health and wellness coordinator Mike Bensel said anecdotally, people he has recently counseled have told him they have heard about increases in syphilis.
"If you've been tested, it's a lot easier to talk to your partners about that," Bensel said. "Protect yourself, protect your partner, know your status."
Rhode Island called that state’s sexually-transmitted infection increases a reminder that people shouldn't become complacent with their sexual health.