Syphilis numbers remain at outbreak levels in Wood County - what you need to know

Wood County is facing a syphilis outbreak.
Wood County is facing a syphilis outbreak.(Laura Bowen)
Published: Mar. 7, 2023 at 1:35 AM EST
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - The syphilis outbreak in Wood County is still very much alive. WTAP has what you need to know.

The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department’s Clinical Services Director Rebecca Eaton has worked in the health field since 1985. She said, up until about five years ago, she’d see a syphilis case about once every ten years.

“To go that long and then all of a sudden see 13 in one year, 32 the next year, and it kept going up and kept going up and the last year they finally declared it an outbreak,” she said.

Eaton said it can take up to six weeks after being exposed to get a positive test. That’s why the health department counts the partners of people with syphilis in their numbers even if they don’t test positive.

“..., and I’ve had providers miss it quite a bit because they’ve not seen it. The providers that have seen it have retired,” she said.

Getting the outbreak status label helps with the response, according to Eaton, “..., and that helps us get more people tested and treated. They’ll release the meds to us faster...,”

Eaton said the major drivers of the outbreak in our area are drug use and sex work. This, however, doesn’t mean that those populations are the only people who should get tested.

“They’re having sex with somebody and those somebodies may not be getting tested,” she said.

Eaton recommends getting tested if you have sex with someone syphilis positive, if you have sex with someone who uses drugs, if you’re a sex-worker, and anyone with symptoms.

Eaton explained that syphilis starts with a sore that doesn’t hurt, on any part of the body. That sore, however, will go away.

Symptoms vary and depend on when you catch it.

“You can get a rash all over the body, you can get….looks like herpes on the cracks of the lips…,” Eaton said.

Those are just some examples. Eaton said some symptoms can get confused for other issues and that they’re not always noticeable.

Eaton warns that not all facilities do all of the proper testing, pointing to this as part of the problem. It’s an issue nationwide.

“..., and I have seen places get an answer of one test and cancel all other tests…so the people got tested - they thought they were tested for everything but they weren’t,” she said.

So, if you get a full STD panel, you need to double check that you were also tested for syphilis.

Additionally, make sure your syphilis test was extensive enough. Eaton said it should include an RPR with a titer and an FDA ABS. TPPA can be used in place of the ABS test.

“Know your partner, know what the risks are, and get tested frequently. If you’re going to have risky behavior, get tested,” Eaton said.

Syphilis left untreated can destroy any major organ.

Last year, the MOVHD saw four infants born to syphilis positive mothers, according to Eaton. It’s an STD that can be passed from a pregnant mother to her baby. Eaton said that it can take up to five years after birth for kids to show symptoms. Going this long without a diagnosis can be very damaging.

The treatment for syphilis is shots, according to Eaton. She warned that the treatment doesn’t go into effect immediately.

“We’re going through a ton of Bicillin,” she said.

The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department serves multiple counties but the outbreak is only in Wood. Still officials warn that it’s something everyone should keep their eyes out for.

Syphilis is an area of concern in Washington County too, according to Haylea Hatten, the HIV STD Program Coordinator for Portsmouth City Health Department.

According to Hatten, in 2018, Washington County saw five cases. In 2019, they saw none. In 2020, they saw two. In 2021, they saw six. In 2022, they saw 10.

Hatten said that you can probably account some of the increase in recent years to be due to increased testing post-peak Covid.

Hatten oversees all southeast Ohio counties. Throughout all those counties, from 2021 to 2022, there’s been a big increase in cases.

Syphilis isn’t just an issue locally.

According to a WV DHHR official, syphilis cases have increased across West Virginia with localized outbreaks in regions with more high risk populations.

The DHHR official said that substance use disorder is now the primary risk factor associated with new infections across West Virginia. Men who have sex with men used to be the population most impacted by syphilis.

The official added that, in 2021, Wood County had the highest rate per capita of early syphilis in West Virginia.

According to an Ohio Department of Health official, all types of syphilis have been increasing throughout Ohio.

For more background on the issue, click here.

Click here for information from the CDC.