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For Immediate Release

April 4, 2001

Contact: H.R. Holman
Oklahoma City-County Health Department
405/425-4361

Dick Gunn
Oklahoma State Department of Health
405/271-5601

Oklahoma City/State Health Departments Kick Off 2001 Syphilis Elimination Campaign

Syphilis Prevention Can Help Stop the Spread of HIV and Improve Infant Health

Oklahoma City-County Health Department and Oklahoma State Health Department are launching their 2001 campaign to prevent and eventually eliminate syphilis in Oklahoma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Oklahoma City ranked sixth in the number of reported primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis cases in cities with more than 200,000 people. Oklahoma County was tenth in the nation for the highest rates of syphilis among counties, according to CDC. Both rankings were based on surveillance figures from 1999, the last year for which they were available.

“Without increased efforts to eliminate syphilis, the disease will continue to infect Americans from poor urban and rural communities, especially African Americans, who are disproportionately affected by the disease,” said George W. Counts, M.D., assistant director of CDC’s Syphilis Elimination Activities.  Dr. Counts is visiting Oklahoma during STD Awareness Month – April -- to help local health officials emphasize the importance of syphilis elimination and prevention. With CDC grants, state and local governments are joining together in a campaign to eliminate syphilis in the United States by 2005.

In 2000, 91 syphilis cases were reported in Oklahoma County out of 118 cases reported statewide.  African Americans had the greatest rate of primary and secondary syphilis cases in Oklahoma County with a rate of 27.1 per 100,000 people.  African Americans and Latinos, ages 30 to 39, are most at risk of infection in the county area. However, the disease is spreading in the white and younger populations.

“At Oklahoma City-County, Health Department staff will be increasing their interviews and field work as a part of the overall syphilis elimination/public education campaign,” said Dr. Dale G. Claflin, OCCHD Medical said. “They also will be providing educational materials to community clinics, organizations, and businesses to help make the public more aware of STDs and their consequences.”

In 1999, CDC reported 6,657 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, in the United States. While the disease is curable and its progression is preventable, syphilis can cause cardiovascular and neurological diseases and blindness if left untreated. Penicillin remains the best cure for syphilis.

“Interventions to control syphilis and other STDs are considered cost-effective usage of public health resources due to the substantial health and economic effects of the disease,” said Dr. Michael Crutcher, State Epidemiologist & Interim Director for Disease and Prevention Services at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Syphilis can facilitate sexual transmission of HIV by up to five times. Nationally, about $752.2 million is spent each year on HIV cases attributed to syphilis. For each primary and secondary syphilis case prevented, about $4,653 are saved in HIV costs.

“If left untreated, the syphilis also can be devastating to a pregnant woman and her unborn fetus, causing substantial harm and sometimes even death of the child,” Crutcher added.

When a pregnant woman has syphilis, her fetus is at risk during any trimester and during any stage of the disease. About one-half of the infants born to untreated pregnant women with primary and secondary syphilis will be stillborn or die in the neonatal period. If syphilis is acquired late in pregnancy, there is a 40 to 70 percent chance that surviving infants will have the disease. Despite therapy, up to 14 percent of pregnancies will end with fetal deaths or infected infants. Studies show that the hospital costs for infants with congenital syphilis are about $4,690 per infant with lifetime costs of affected babies at over $80,000 per case.

According to CDC, 1999 reported rates of primary and secondary syphilis were 30 times higher nationally for African Americans than for white Americans. Race and ethnicity are not risk factors for syphilis, however, important factors such as poverty, less access to quality health care, and higher rates of substance abuse, contribute to the high rates of syphilis in the African American population.

Counts notes that these trends are reversible and local health officials can truly make a difference.

“Baltimore, once the top city for syphilis, cut its infection rates by more than 63 percent from 101.8 per 100,000 in 1997 to 38.1 per 100,000 in 1999,” added Counts. “They did it through increased public awareness and access to health care for African Americans, and by working with state and local health departments.”

Oklahoma City-County Health Department officials hope to see the same type of results.

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