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May 26, 2024

Syphilis Cases Surge Over 20-Fold in Alaska As Health Officials Urge Testing

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Jan 17, 2024

Syphilis cases have increased dramatically in Alaska over the past decade, prompting health officials to recommend regular testing for all sexually active adults under age 45. While syphilis is curable with antibiotics, if left untreated it can cause serious health complications.

Syphilis Cases Up Over 20 Times Since 2010

According to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the number of infectious syphilis cases reported annually has skyrocketed from 36 cases in 2010 to 770 cases in 2023 [1]. This represents over a 20-fold increase in reported syphilis infections in just over 10 years.

Rates have been rising across the entire state, but some regions have seen particularly sharp increases. For example, the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region had less than 5 cases per year through 2016 but tallied 177 cases in 2023.

Year Alaska Syphilis Cases
2010 36
2023 770

[1]: Alaska adults of childbearing age advised to get frequent testing for syphilis

Health Officials Now Recommend Frequent Testing

In response to the growing syphilis crisis across Alaska, health officials are now recommending that all sexually active adults ages 15-44 get tested for syphilis at least once per year.

Some groups are encouraged to test even more frequently – every 3-6 months if:

  • Having multiple sex partners
  • Having anonymous sex partners
  • Using drugs that can increase high-risk sexual behaviors

Pregnant women are also advised to get tested again during the third trimester and at delivery.

The new testing recommendations aim to identify more syphilis cases earlier and curb further spread of infections. Cases are often asymptomatic, so frequent screening is viewed as crucial.

“Due to the astronomical rise in infectious syphilis around Alaska, testing is more important than ever,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist. “Regular screening allows cases to be diagnosed and treated before complications develop or further transmission occurs.”

Syphilis Can Cause Severe Complications If Not Treated

While syphilis is easily cured with antibiotics, allowing infections to go undiagnosed can lead to severe health consequences.

Syphilis develops in four stages [2]:

  1. Primary syphilis – A painless sore at site of infection
  2. Secondary syphilis – Rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes
  3. Latent syphilis – No symptoms, but infection still present
  4. Tertiary syphilis – Severe symptoms like neurological/organ damage

Without treatment, an infected person can progress through these stages over many years, ultimately reaching the debilitating tertiary phase. About 30% of untreated syphilis cases advance to tertiary syphilis.

Congenital syphilis can also occur if a pregnant woman passes the infection to her baby during gestation, leading to premature birth, birth defects, stillbirth and more. Alaska saw 22 cases of congenital syphilis from 2018-2022.

“ Early detection through regular testing remains the best way to avoid the damaging late-stage symptoms of syphilis,” Dr. McLaughlin said. “We strongly urge all sexually active Alaskans to take advantage of screening.”

[2]: Amid a 20-fold increase in syphilis cases, health officials recommend Alaskans under 45 seek testing

Alaska Leads Nation in Rate of Infection

Beyond the rapid acceleration of cases within the state, Alaska also tops the entire nation in its syphilis infection rate.

According to 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alaska ranked #1 among U.S. states in primary and secondary syphilis rates per 100,000 population – more than double the overall national rate [3].

Area Syphilis Rate per 100k
Alaska 180.9
National 52.8

This distinction illustrates how severely Alaska is being impacted by surging syphilis transmission compared to other parts of the country. Experts believe several factors are driving Alaska’s outbreak, including:

  • Remote communities with limited access to healthcare
  • High rates of poverty, drug use and lack of housing contributing to risky behaviors
  • Historical lack of sexual health education in many areas

“Alaska faces some unique healthcare challenges related to our vast geography, underserved communities and economic hardship,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska Chief Medical Officer. “Combined with gaps in sexual health resources, these have created a ‘perfect storm’ for syphilis spread.”

[3]: CDC: Amid sharp rise in syphilis cases, regular testing recommended for many Alaskans

Efforts Underway to Improve Testing and Awareness

State health agencies report several initiatives are now underway to curb syphilis rates through expanded testing access, community partnerships, educational outreach and more.

Some current efforts include:

  • Increasing provider screening trainings across Alaska to encourage more frequent syphilis testing
  • Enhancing lab testing capacity to handle growing testing volume
  • Launching awareness campaigns to educate Alaskans about syphilis and promote testing
  • Expanding tribal testing programs through partnerships with regional tribal health organizations
  • Investigating every reported case to trace contacts and try to break chains of transmission

“Turning the tide on this outbreak will require collaboration across health partners and engagement from affected communities themselves,” Dr. Zink said. “But there is hope – with increased awareness, testing and access to preventive treatment, we can overcome these challenges in the years ahead.”

The Path Forward

While Alaska faces a steep climb to get its runaway syphilis transmission back under control, health officials emphasize that the ultimate solution lies in consistent screening, early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

By urging all sexually active Alaskans under 45 to get tested annually, cases can be detected sooner, preventing advancement to damaging late-stage disease. Identifying more cases also allows for partner notification so those exposed can likewise get tested and treated if necessary.

If more Alaskans heed current testing guidance and take advantage of screening opportunities when possible, health leaders believe the trajectory of the outbreak can still be reversed. But it will require a concerted effort on the part of both the healthcare system and individual residents alike.

“With continued collaboration between state health authorities, local providers and community members themselves, we can overcome these challenges,” Dr. McLaughlin said. “Now is the time for all Alaskans to take responsibility by getting tested and encouraging friends, partners and family members to do the same.”

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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