ENID, Okla. — Health officials are urging prevention and testing as the state experiences surge in syphilis cases.

Of special concern, according to an Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) press release, is the rate of congenital syphilis — syphilis passed from an infected mother to her baby in the womb.

Oklahoma has experienced a 283% increase in the number of congenital syphilis cases in women since 2014, according to OSDH, and a 92% increase in the number of cases from 2018 to 2019. OSDH is urging health care providers to test patients during the first and third trimesters.

Adults transmit syphilis through sexual contact, but mothers can transmit the infection to their baby in the womb or through the birthing process. The disease can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, death shortly after birth, prematurity and birth defects.

“A woman can be treated and cured for syphilis during pregnancy, but it is important for women to be tested in time for treatment to be effective,” according to OSDH. “Babies who test positive for syphilis at birth must be treated immediately to prevent serious health issues.”

Maggie Jackson, OSDH regional director for Garfield, Alfalfa, Grant, Major and Woods counties, said syphilis has been on the rise in the area over the last 15 years.

“Before 2007, there very few or no cases every year and then we began to see more cases around 2008,” Jackson said.

She said there was a spike in 2013 with a rate of 24 cases per 100,000 people, and since 2014, Garfield County rate has fluctuated between 4 and 12 per 100,000 per year.

Jackson urged people to take preventive measures — syphilis is preventable by using condoms.

“Because people can be infected without symptoms for years, it is so important to be tested,” Jackson said.

The Garfield County Health Department provides free confidential testing, evaluation, health education, and treatment for gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.

She said those screenings are particularly important for pregnant women whose babies may be at risk for congenital syphilis.

“Pregnant women have so many things to think about, so early testing and treatment in pregnancy can help prevent passing syphilis from a mother to her newborn,” Jackson said. “I encourage pregnant women to be tested when their pregnancy is confirmed and again at the third trimester. It is important that their sexual partner be tested as well.”

Terrainia Harris, an administrative program manager for the OSDH Sexual Health and Harm Reduction (SHHR) Service, echoed that recommendation.

“The most effective method for getting ahead of this epidemic is early testing and treatment,” said Harris. “The resurgence of syphilis cases in recent years highlights the fact that challenges remain and we are encouraging clinicians to get back to basics with syphilis prevention, testing, and treatment. We are asking them to assist us in focusing efforts to strengthen treatment administration and adherence, as well as improve case identification and reporting.”

Syphilis symptoms may be very mild or may be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses. The only way to know for sure if someone is infected is through testing, according to OSDH.

“It is important for everyone to include testing for sexually transmitted diseases as a part of their routine health care,” according to the press release. “Prenatal care is a key component to the overall health and wellness of a mother and her unborn child. The sooner a woman begins receiving medical care during pregnancy, the better the health outcomes for her and the unborn baby.”

For information about diagnosing or treating syphilis, contact the SHHR Service at (405) 271-4636.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
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