Unprotected sex? Think again

Awareness flyer of what signs people may need to be aware of in case infected with syphilis. (Photo by Pima County Health Department)

Syphilis rates continue to rise throughout the country and in Arizona.

Experts say lack of education, medical tools and now the progression of dating apps—the old-fashioned “Netflix and Chill”— have shown a positive correlation in increasing syphilis numbers.

Since 2012, numbers have increased by 327 percent in Arizona compared to the number of people infected in 2016. During these years, the state recorded the third highest syphilis rates, according to federal data.

However, Arizona is not the only one affected by these STD outbreaks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016 had the highest number of new syphilis cases reported throughout all of America.

Arizona trends mirror national cases.

Numbers recorded in Arizona from January through August have increased 22 people in 2017 from the prior year for primary and secondary syphilis cases. The current total number of people in the state of Arizona infected for all categories of syphilis is at 1,141.

Southern Arizona has the highest number of recorded cases due to Pima and Maricopa counties having the largest residential numbers. Rates of syphilis are recorded through every 100,000 population.

According to the Pima County Health Department, in 2012 there were 31 cases reported. Two years later, that number has increased an additional 46 people. As of Aug. 31, 2017, Pima County is at 57 syphilis cases, according to health investigations.

In 2016, the number of recorded syphilis cases in Pima County was marked at 108 people—93 male and 15 females. Men having sex with men and people sharing injectable drugs are major contributing factors, according to health records. But, with the evolution of technology, the spotlight is shining blame toward dating apps like Tinder or Grindr.

“Dating apps and sites have had an impact in our syphilis cases due to the ease of meeting partners,” said Azucena Huerta, a disease investigator for Pima County Health Department. People are not protecting themselves, and this remains the biggest issue since these applications began to become popular in 2014.

According to health departments, symptoms of the bacterial STD include a painless sore near or inside a person’s mouth, genitals or anus. A person who is diagnosed with syphilis can also have symptoms of a rash on the palm of their hands, bottom of their feet or in the area between the armpits and upper thighs.

Syphilis is easily treatable with a penicillin shot if caught early. However, if left untreated it can easily be passed on to others and cause greater medical consequences.

The health department works to prevent this disease by partnering with organizations around the community to conduct community outreach and educational services. Sexually transmitted disease campaigns are consistently shared with the community for people to find more information about help and prevention.

“Keep your eyes open,” said Lee Ann Hamilton, the assistant director of health promotion and preventive services for the University of Arizona. “Just simply keep the lights on or light candles so you know if you see something unusual you don’t get too close to it.”

According to the Pima County Health Department, 47 percent of all males (whether with another man or woman) in 2016 was diagnosed with the infection after having sexual interactions with someone they met on a dating app. That number has increased to 51 percent of all Pima County cases this year, Huerta said.

Experts said the bacteria is what is being spread and that is not because of the dating apps, but it is the behavioral actions people are taking in that may lead them to be diagnosed with this disease.

“Most people are not prepared and are choosing to have unprotected sex. Whether there is alcohol/drug impairment or not,” Huerta said. “It’s concerning especially since syphilis is now affecting women and infants.”

If you or somebody you know need more information or help regarding syphilis in Pima County, please visit http://webcms.pima.gov/cms/One.aspx?portalId=169&pageId=136859.


Jamie Lindsay is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at jamielindsay@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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