Following reports of clusters of ocular syphilis in Washington State (6) and San Francisco (7) since December 2014, Los Angeles County health officials say they are investigating two independent cases of possible ocular syphilis.

Los Angeles County map/Thadius856
Los Angeles County map/Thadius856

This has prompted the, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LAC DPH) to issue an health advisory directed at primary care providers, HIV and infection disease specialists, ophthalmologists, optometrists, and other eye care providers to be vigilant and to consider syphilis in patients presenting with visual complaints if they have risk factors for syphilis.

Take a sexual history to determine risk for syphilis. In LA County, most cases of syphilis occur in men who have sex with men (MSM) and over half are HIV-infected.

The clusters in King County, WA and San Francisco were mostly seen among MSM and HIV-infected and have resulted in a significant and permanent decline in visual acuity, including at least two cases of blindness.

These current clusters raise the concern of specific strains of Treponema pallidum with a greater likelihood of causing ocular infections.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) President, Michael Weinstein said in a statement today, “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.

“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.”

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Symptoms of syphilis are easy to miss, and easy to mistake for something else. Symptoms in each stage look different, ranging from painless sores that go away to a rash to no symptoms at all. But syphilis in the later stages causes paralysis, dementia, blindness, deafness, heart failure and even death.