Health officials: Syphilis on the rise in Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN 6) — Health officials held a Town Hall meeting Monday night to discuss a worrisome rise in syphilis cases in the Portland area.

Syphilis was all but wiped out around 2000. Now it’s finding a second life, particularly in Multnomah County. In 2008, there were just 20 cases of syphilis reported in the area. Five years later, that number jumped to 239.

“Of all the large, urban areas in the country we’re the fifth highest in terms of rates of syphilis,” Kim Toevs with Multnomah County Health Department told KOIN 6 News.

In recent years, the infection’s rise has been tied to gay and bisexual men, particularly those infected with HIV, who make up more than half of the new infections in Oregon.

“They may be decreasing their condom use because they’re using other methods,” Toevs explained. “Unfortunately for the bacteria that moves around, condoms are the thing that prevents the bacteria from spreading.”

Because more options are available to keep partners safe from HIV, health officials believe condom use is declining.

“The less condoms people are using, the higher transmission of syphilis,” Caitlin Wells, Director of Prevention and Education at Cascade AIDS Project, said. “That’s part of why we’ve seen such a rise in the outbreak over the past few years.”

The rise in syphilis cases is steepest in Multnomah County — between 2010 and 2013, the number of cases jumped from 64 to 239. During the same time period, Washington County’s number went from 16 to 70.

Officials believe phone dating and pickup apps like Grindr and Tinder can intensify the problem in densely populated areas.

“Just looking at a mathematical model of bacteria going from point A to B to C to D, there’s more pathways through the community,” Toevs said. “So more mixing of different partners over a broader area could increase disease transmission.”

Monday’s Town Hall meeting was held as a way to educate the community on syphilis and create awareness for high-risk groups about what the symptoms are. Health officials recommended regular testing for sexually active people.

If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health problems including vision and hearing loss.

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