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Syphilis Cases Rise in Las Vegas

CDC/Phanie/Science Source

The bacterium that causes syphilis is spread through sexual contact. It's easily cured with antibiotics, but can be hard to diagnose.

Syphilis is on the rise – both in Las Vegas and nationwide.

Clark County has had a 128 percent rise in reported syphilis cases since 2012 and 89 percent of that occurred in 2015.

Tony Frederick is the medical epidemiologist at the Southern Nevada Health District. He said one of the reasons for the rise is the belief that it is an easy disease to treat and not that serious.

"I think that people also know that it can be treated very easily so they just don't really care," Frederick said. "It's not an innocuous disease. First of all, it is easily passed on and also people can become very, very ill from it and eventually die from it."

Frederick said one of the first symptoms will be a painless sore on the genitals, which eventually goes away. Following that stage, people will notice a flat, painless rash. It can be anywhere on the body. People will also feel lethargic and tired. If left untreated, it can impact brain function and even lead to death. 

Jason Butts is the Disease Investigation and Intervention Specialist at the health district. After a person is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, he tries to track down his or her partners to let them know they may have been exposed.

He says another reason there's been a rise in syphilis cases is the use of smart phone applications where people can easily find anonymous sex partners.

The trend is troubling for people in public health for obvious reasons. Butts said often people have sex... "never knowing the person's name, never knowing the person's history, never knowing if they have anything up to and including HIV." 

If someone has truly anonymous sex, it is impossible to track down partners after a diagnosis. With a list of names and phone numbers, Butts is often able to track down partners and explain to them that they may have been exposed. 

"Ideally we want to get them before they get symptoms so they don't spread it," he said. 



The health district is also working to get the word out to the whole community. 

"We find out where most of the infection is or what target population and then we go to them to test them," Butts said.

Frederick said he is hopeful that education and testing will help stop the spread. 






Tony Frederick, medical epidemiologist at the Southern Nevada Health District;  Jason Butts, Disease Investigation and Intervention Specialist at the health district

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)