State health officials investigate flare of syphilis

Five infected men reported in Anchorage, one in Southeast

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

ANCHORAGE - State health officials are investigating an outbreak of syphilis spreading mainly in men having unprotected sex with other men.

Six cases of infectious syphilis were reported between Sept. 15 and Dec. 10, according to the state Section of Epidemiology. Five of the infected men live in Anchorage and one in Southeast Alaska, according to a health bulletin issued by the office Monday.

Syphilis has been declining nationwide for a decade, although rates started increasing for the early stages of the disease in 2001 and 2002. The increase occurred only in men. A number of major cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, reported recent outbreaks among men having sex with men, the health bulletin said.

Infectious cases have been rare in Alaska, so the six reported in less than three months is an "unusual event" here, said Dr. Beth Funk, acting state epidemiologist.

The bulletin said it has been almost 10 years since the state had a period with more than two reported cases.

"In the past several years, we've not had any infectious syphilis," said Cathy Feaster, program manager for the Reproductive Health Clinic with the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services.

State health officials are working with the Anchorage health department to find possible sexual partners of the infected men, speak with them confidentially and encourage them to be tested for syphilis. The Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association started passing out fliers and making announcements over the weekend at local bars to encourage safe sex and testing, said Trevor Storrs, the group's executive director.

Several of the infected men may have contracted syphilis through sexual partners outside Alaska, the bulletin said. Funk said the health department is looking for common links among the six.

The outbreak involves men who have had sex with men and women, and health officials stressed that both sexes can become infected through vaginal, anal or oral sex.

People can get a blood test for syphilis. The earlier it's diagnosed, the more easily it's cured with antibiotics, typically penicillin, Feaster said.

Symptoms typically start surfacing between 10 and 90 days after someone has sexual contact with an infected person. In the early stages of syphilis, one or more sores occur. Having syphilis lesions may make it easier for someone to transmit and acquire HIV infection, state health officials said.

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