News Release

May 30, 2001


Houston Health Officials Detect Syphilis Increase

The Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS) is increasing syphilis testing and prevention activities in the Houston gay community due to an increase in new infections among men who have sex with men (MSM). In the first four months of 2001, syphilis infections among MSMs accounted for 35 percent of the total Houston early syphilis cases compared to 17 percent during the same period in 2000.

"The increase in early syphilis among gay men in Houston may reflect a recent national trend," said John Paffel, HDHHS' STD Prevention Program Manager. "After several years of declining syphilis numbers, an increase from 13 cases to 28 cases in four months is alarming."

There has been an 82 percent decrease in early syphilis cases in Houston from 1991 (4,726 cases) to 2000 (847 cases).

"Our staff has increased our prevention activities in the bars, book stores and areas frequented by men who have sex with men. We are also working closely with the Montrose Clinic to ensure that we have access to as many prevention venues as possible," continued Paffel.

In addition to the danger of the disease itself, people who are infected with syphilis are at increased risk of HIV infection. "The syphilis chancre sores make the risk of HIV infection two to five times higher," Paffel said. Syphilis and HIV can be prevented though safer sex practices such as condom use, reducing the number of sexual partners

and eliminating high-risk sexual practices. Antibiotic treatment ends infectivity in 24 to 48 hours.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema Pallidum. Transmission occurs when the uninfected partner has contact with the infected partner's painless lesion, chancre, which is often located in the genital, anal or mouth area. The newly infected person will develop chancre lesions about three weeks later.

Left untreated, the infection progresses to the secondary phase when one or more areas of the skin break into a non-itchy rash. Secondary syphilis symptoms also include fever, swollen lymph glands, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue. If the case remains untreated the patient will go into the latent stage when the symptoms disappear but the disease continues to cause damage.

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