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Syphilis rates in Santa Barbara County have more than quadrupled in the past few years as the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases continues to rise.
Later stages of the disease can lead to serious symptoms such as blindness, paralysis and death in extreme cases. However, if caught at an early stage, syphilis can be cured and contained. The majority of syphilis cases are found in men who have had sex with other men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Santa Barbara County Department of Health Deputy Director Susan Klein-Rothschild said syphilis infections for the county have risen at a faster rate than that of other sexually transmitted diseases.
“In 2011 we had five [syphilis] cases, in 2012 we had 10 cases, and in 2013 we had 22 cases. That’s a big increase,” Rothschild said. “Our deputy health officer Lynn Fitzgibbons [talked] about maybe people not using condoms to the same degree that would have a big impact on sexually transmitted diseases.”
According to Rothschild, although the 2014 statistics are not yet in, the upward trend of the last few years suggests there will be more cases than in previous years, and thus she strongly recommends people get more educated about STDs and the benefits of getting regular screenings.
“People need to get screened, and after the Affordable Care Act, everyone should have healthcare coverage,” Rothschild said. “It’s one of those things that we can address when we know about it, but if we don’t know about it, how do we take care of it? Prevention, early detection, and intervention are so much more effective than trying to treat something further down the line.”
Mary Ferris, M.D., director of UCSB Student Health, said the increasing syphilis rates may be a spillover from more urban areas like Los Angeles.
“Whenever an infection is present that’s easily spread, it’s inevitable that it’s going to come to our area,” Ferris said. “It’s becoming a more prevalent disease. It’s a contagious illness and it’s spreading through sexual contact.”
Julie Mickelberry, the vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in the Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties, said syphilis is challenging to treat because the mild symptoms it presents in its early stages are typically overlooked or hard to detect.
“One of the challenges of combating syphilis is that especially in its early stage, it has mild or unnoticeable symptoms,” Mickelberry said in an email. “The only way to confirm that someone has syphilis is to be tested for it. Students should be empowered to take control over their sexual and reproductive health.”
According to Ferris, Student Health encourages people to use condoms when having sex. Ferris also said students should also be more vigilant about using protection when they hear there is an increased presence of a given sexually transmitted infection.
“The increase of syphilis should make students more concerned about sexually transmitted infections and [should] make them even more motivated to be sure to use condoms for protection,” Ferris said. “Really, that’s the only way you can protect yourself, through a barrier, when you’re having sexual relations.”
According to Ferris, STD/STI tests are fairly simple and results can be emailed to student confidentially. Students should get tested at least once a year, or every time they get a new partner, Ferris said.
“It’s doesn’t require an invasive exam. It’s just a urine test and a blood test,” Ferris said. “The tests don’t always turn positive for sexually transmitted infections immediately after the contact, so waiting 2-3 weeks, especially if you’re feeling fine, is better. If you have any symptoms or unusual discharges or extra pain, come in sooner.”
Ferris also said there is a greater need for sex education because sexually transmitted diseases and infections are still common in general.
“I think there is always room for more education because every case of a sexually transmitted infection is preventable,” Ferris said. “Until we get to zero [cases] we think that we need to keep promoting that message and emphasizing how important it is to use protection.”
A version of this story appeared on page 1 of Wednesday, June 25, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.