Contact: Porfirio Villarreal at 713-794-9021

New syphilis cases in the Houston area rose an unprecedented 28 percent in the first half of 2007, an increase the Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS) considers an outbreak.

Statistics from Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS) indicate new infections, known as primary, secondary and early latent syphilis, reached 230 cases during the first six months of 2007 compared to 180 cases during the same period last year.

HDHHS urges immediate testing for syphilis to men who engage in anonymous sex, anyone who has had multiple sex partners and sex workers. It also urges testing to people who recently tested positive for any other sexually-transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia or HIV to determine if they also have become infected with syphilis.

HDHHS strongly recommends that medical providers — especially those with patient caseloads of gay and bisexual men — conduct risk assessments to determine if their patients are at increased risk for syphilis, increase testing and ensure prompt treatment. HDHHS also urges providers to immediately report syphilis cases so it can provide testing and treatment to the sexual contacts of people with the disease.

As rapid response to the rise in syphilis cases, HDHHS will expand free testing and treatment services in September at its main sexually-transmitted disease (STD) facility, Medical Center Clinic, 1115 S. Braeswood, and Lyons Avenue Health Center, 5602 Lyons. The two facilities will open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Medical Center Clinic will open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Legacy Community Health Services, 215 Westheimer, will also provide free testing in September weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

HDHHS will also intensify syphilis surveillance and community field work by disease intervention specialists who refer people at high risk to testing sites.

HDHHS will ramp up the schedule of its HIV/STD mobile clinic and send it to various areas of the city, enabling the department to take its education, counseling and testing services directly to the community, especially high-risk or hard-to-reach populations. A customized recreation vehicle equipped with a lab, the mobile unit allows HDHHS staff to provide confidential testing for syphilis, HIV and Chlamydia.

Syphilis greatly facilitates the spread of HIV as a result of the 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 break 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 713-794-9020. For additional syphilis information, visit www.noexcuseshouston.org.

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This news release was issued August 29, 2007.