Health and Human Services

Contacts: Kathy Barton
Porfirio Villarreal

HDHHS detects syphilis outbreak,
begins rapid response

The Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS) has declared a syphilis outbreak in Houston and Harris County.

HDHHS is reporting a 97 percent increase in new infectious syphilis cases during the first seven months of 2012 compared to the same time period last year. The outbreak marks a trend reversal as it comes after yearly decreases in new syphilis infections between 2008 and 2011.

There were 318 infectious syphilis cases, known as primary and secondary syphilis, from January through August of this year. The number of cases totaled 264 in 2011.
Approximately 39 percent of people with infectious syphilis this year also tested HIV positive. Houston’s last syphilis outbreak occurred in 2007.

HDHHS urges immediate testing for syphilis to:

• men who have sex with men;
• people who engage in anonymous sex;
• anyone who has had multiple sex partners; and
• people who test positive for other sexually-transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia and HIV.

HDHHS strongly recommends that medical providers, particularly those that provide health care services for men, determine if their patients are at increased risk for syphilis. HDHHS also urges medical providers to offer testing for syphilis, immediately report syphilis to their local health department and provide prompt treatment to infected people and their sexual partners.

HDHHS has intensified syphilis detection and community field work by disease intervention specialists who refer people at high risk to testing sites.

It has also expanded the schedule of its HIV/STD mobile clinic to provide education, counseling and testing services directly to the community, especially high-risk or hard-to-reach populations. The mobile clinic provides confidential testing for syphilis, HIV, gonorrhea, Chlamydia and hepatitis C.

HDHHS offers testing and treatment services at Sharpstown Health Services, 6201 Bonhomme; Sunnyside Health Center, 4605 Wilmington; and Northside Health Center, 8504 Schuller.
Syphilis increases the spread of HIV as a result of a painless sore that develops at the site of sexual contact during the disease’s primary stage.

Syphilis is easily treatable with antibiotics. However, without adequate treatment, syphilis infection progresses to the secondary stage when one or more areas of the skin breaks into a rash – usually non-itchy and most typically on the palms and soles. Other second stage symptoms can also include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue.

In most cases, syphilis goes undetected because the signs and symptoms are misinterpreted or simply unnoticed. If untreated, Treponema Pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis, remains in the body and begins to damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can result in a stillbirth or a baby's death soon after birth.

Information on testing sites and syphilis is available by calling HDHHS’ HIV/STD Information Hotline at 832-393-5010. For additional syphilis information, visit



syphilis charts