A national increase in syphilis cases continues to impact Montana and public health officials are concerned.  During the first couple of months in 2018, nine new syphilis cases were reported in Montana, continuing the 2017 outbreak experienced when 49 cases were reported. The increase in cases is alarming when compared to the average of 12 cases per year reported from 2014-2016.

Image/US Department of Interior, US Geological Survey
Image/US Department of Interior, US Geological Survey

While cases in past years occurred primarily among men who have sex with men, 4 out of 9 of the 2018 cases are women. The increase of cases among women is a concern because the infection can be easily passed to an unborn child, resulting in serious complications or death of the baby. Yellowstone County reported 2/3 of this year’s cases with others identified in Cascade, Gallatin and Lewis & Clark counties.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can have very serious complications when left untreated, but it is simple to prevent and can be cured with penicillin. When not adequately treated, syphilis can lead to visual impairment, hearing loss, cardiac arrest, dementia and even death. Syphilis infection can also increase a person’s risk for getting HIV or giving it to others.

One of the most serious complications is congenital syphilis, which can occur when an untreated woman with syphilis gives birth. Up to 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis die from the infection as a newborn.

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Dana Fejes of the DPHHS STD-HIV Prevention Section said there are simple steps people can take to prevent STDs. “It is important for Montanans to know that STDs are preventable and treatable,” Fejes said. “Become informed about disease transmission and protect yourself. If you are sexually active, talk to your health care provider about the need for testing. If you are at risk, regular screening is essential in preventing transmission and long term health consequences associated with STDs.”

It is crucial that syphilis is detected early, reported timely and treated appropriately to prevent others from becoming infected and prevent any adverse health outcomes of untreated syphilis.

To lower the risk of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections, DPHHS recommends the following:

  • Reduce your number of sexual partner(s) or remain in a long-term monogamous relationship.
  • Talk to your partner about STDs.
  • Use latex condoms every time you have sex.
  • Get the vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can protect you against diseases (including cancers) caused by the virus.
  • Speak with your health care provider about your sexual history so that he or she can provide you with the appropriate STD testing and prevention guidance.

“If you are not comfortable speaking with your regular health care provider, contact one of the clinics listed on the DPHHS website for confidential and free or low-cost testing,” Fejes said.