Health officials in McLean County are concerned about a sharp rise in syphilis cases. It reflects a trend in the sexually transmitted disease becoming more prevalent in downstate Illinois.
Communicable Disease Supervisor with the McLean County Health Department Melissa Graven said the county's preliminary data shows 25 syphilis cases last year and 20 cases already in 2019.
“It’s very concerning when in previous years, we maybe would see five, 10 cases at the most, and we are doubling that and are on pace to see even more (this year),” Graven said. “We worry about the long-term effects that untreated syphilis can have on people. It can cause a lot of damage to nerves, eyes.
“It can lead to death if not treated.”
The state of Illinois declared a syphilis outbreak in McLean County last year. Statewide, syphilis cases have tripled in Illinois over the last decade, with a greater frequency coming in rural areas.
Graven said she suspects part of the increase comes from greater awareness about the sexually transmitted disease.
“A lot of people thought that was something that happened lots of years ago and we don’t have that problem anymore, but now people are more aware of syphilis and are testing for it,” Graven said. “The exact reason for it I think is still trying to be determined at a national level.”
Graven said the county health department's role is to ensure the medical community tests for the disease.
Syphilis is preventable but can be fatal if left untreated, and symptoms might not be detectable for weeks.
“Syphilis can be a very sensitive topic that a lot of people won’t want to talk about,” Graven said. “We try to educate our providers and our urgent care (centers) and our Community Health Care (Clinic) and Chestnut Family Health Center and getting the messaging out that syphilis isn’t always thought about being screened for.”
The nonprofit Kaiser Health News attributes part of the rise in syphilis cases to a drop in the state's funding for STD prevention over the last four years.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 1,862 syphilis cases in 2018. That number reflects a decrease from 2,417 in 2017 then the number nearly doubled from 2016 when there were 1,260 cases reported.
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