Illustration by Sam Papavasiliou

Syphilis Rates Spike in Humboldt

Though prevalent, there are many free treatment and prevention options

Though prevalent, there are many free treatment and prevention options

Syphilis rates are spiking throughout California, and Humboldt County is no exception. If left untreated, syphilis can cause a brain condition that resembles dementia, heart problems, skin ulcers and blindness.

Nurse Practitioner Andrea Shoup is taking an active role to better inform the community about risk factors, prevention and treatment of syphilis.

“It’s totally treatable,” Shoup said. “People don’t really get tested. If they do, it’s not enough.”

Syphilis can manifest, but then seem to disappear. If a person doesn’t get regularly tested, they may never know they have it and spread it without knowing. There are also risk factors that increase the likelihood of contracting syphilis. Men who have sex with other men are at a higher risk than men who only have sex with women.

“It’s just the butthole,” Shoup said. “The anus tears more easily than the vagina.”

Other risk factors include finding sexual partners using social media, which can create a false sense of trust between partners. Methamphetamine use is also linked to high rates of syphilis. People under the age of 26 are also more likely to contract syphilis than any other age group.

“That just comes down to promiscuity,” Shoup said. “It’s true in my own life. I kind of doubled down at 20.”

Dr. Teresa Frankovich, the health officer for Humboldt County, said she is not surprised about the local rate of syphilis.

“I somewhat expect we would see the same trend as elsewhere,” Frankovich said. “There’s ultimately a large amount of people at-risk.”

Though the actual number of cases are going up, Frankovich thinks there’s more to it.

“Part of it is we’re doing a better job at screening individuals,” Frankovich said. “We’re catching more cases of it.”

“Notifying your partner if you have a positive test is really important.”

Dr. Teresa Frankovich

There is a lot that can be done to limit the risk of exposure to syphilis. Frankovich suggested limiting partners. Abstinence and monogamous relationships are ideal for limiting exposure to STDs. Condoms are available at most medical treatment facilities, including the Student Health Center on campus. Condoms are also available by prescription.

Shoup says condom prescriptions, though important for limiting STD rates, still cause controversy.

“I had some Republican coworkers that were all, ‘I’m paying for people’s pleasure,’” Shoup said.

Along with condom prescriptions, yearly screenings are recommended. Since syphilis and other STDs such as chlamydia can go unnoticed, there is no way of knowing the STD status of a partner without a test.

“Notifying your partner if you have a positive test is really important,” Frankovich said.

Frankovich acknowledged that communicating with past partners about syphilis can be a challenge for many, which is why the Public Health division of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services provides a service called the Partner Services Program. Public health will assist in contacting partners and inform past partners in order to jump the hurdle of uncomfortable situations.

The Student Health Center, the Open Door Clinics, Planned Parenthood and any general practitioner can help with preventative measures, testing and treatment.

“Really it’s a lot of bad things that you don’t want,” Shoup said. “You don’t see the consequences until much later.”

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