After remaining stable for several years, cases of syphilis are on the rise in Volusia County, according to the Florida Department of Health (DOH) in Volusia County. For the third consecutive year, syphilis rates have trended higher. In 2014, the department reported 30 syphilis cases. That rate more than doubled to 80 in 2016.

Volusia County map/David Benbennick
Volusia County map/David Benbennick

“The 2017 rate is on pace to match last year’s total,” said DOH-Volusia Administrator Patricia Boswell. “It’s only April and we have seen 24 cases this year.”

Syphilis is not the only sexually transmitted disease (STD) on the rise. “DOH also measures chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV rates – all of which have been increasing the last couple of years,” Boswell added. To date this year, chlamydia has increased 12 percent and gonorrhea has increased 26 percent.

“These higher rates may partly be due to better access to testing,” Boswell said. “We are encouraging STD testing and also working with community partners to educate on prevention and identify and treat infected people. This community effort is giving us a better picture of the rate of infection in the area.”

A significant portion of the total rise in syphilis cases is among men who have sex with men, however the increases are not exclusive to this population segment or to adults in general.

“Syphilis does not discriminate among the sexes, geography or sexual orientation,” according to Dr. Paul Rehme, DOH-Volusia disease control director. Syphilis cases are documented in all areas of Volusia County in men and women. In 2017, 36 percent of syphilis cases were seen in females compared to less than 20 percent the previous two years.

“Adults are not the only ones at risk,” Rehme added. Babies can be born with the disease, also known as congenital syphilis, when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy. Congenital syphilis can be prevented if the mother is tested while pregnant and receives treatment. If untreated, congenital syphilis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity and babies may develop problems with their eyes, ears, teeth and bone structure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection as a newborn.

“One of the difficult factors to overcome is that a man or woman may be infected with syphilis and not even know it,” Rehme said. “It’s easy to miss the symptoms early on, but 10 to 30 years down the road, syphilis can affect the heart or neurological systems and that damage is permanent.”

The only way to avoid syphilis and other STDs is to not have sex. However, if you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of infection:

  • Be in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a partner who has tested negative for syphilis and other STDs.
  • Use condoms the right way every time you have sex.
  • Get tested. STD testing and treatment is available at DOH-Volusia locations in Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach and Orange City. Appointments are not needed. Testing is free, fast and confidential. You can also talk to your health care provider about getting testing for syphilis and other STDs.
  • If you test positive for syphilis or other STDs, get treated right away and be sure your sexual partner is treated as well to reduce the risk of re-infection.

Along with better reporting, several factors could be affecting disease rates. “It’s not just Volusia County that is seeing this increase. From a national perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has looked at behavioral changes among men who have sex with men, better HIV treatment, social media ‘hook up’ applications, less use of condoms and decreased access to care for testing and treatment of STDs,” Rehme said.