Latest data from the Alaska Dept. of Health shows syphilis is still on the rise

Published: Nov. 3, 2023 at 9:31 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - For years, both the last frontier and the nation have faced a rise in syphilis cases. In Alaska the data points to younger heterosexual adults as the main population contracting the illness.

There’s an infection on the rise and it’s one that’s troubled humanity for centuries. Americans are seeing an increase in syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection.

According to the Division of Epidemiology, syphilis has been on the rise in the last frontier since 2018. A recent published report shows there were an additional 424 cases in 2022 alone. “During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was reduced access pretty much across the state and across the nation to STI screening opportunities and services,” said Julia Rogers, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Dept. of Health. This led to more infections going undetected allowing further spread.

Of these reported cases, 17 percent were in the primary stage of infection and 21 percent were in the secondary stage. “The primary stage is the first stage as you might guess of the infection and it’s usually when somebody might notice some painless sores where syphilis has entered their body,” Rogers said. “Other symptoms will appear during the secondary stage.” The rest of the cases were either pre symptomatic, post symptomatic or congenital. The post symptomatic cases are the most concerning, however, as individuals in this stage are more likely to spread the infection unknowingly.

Among the sexes, 53 percent were male and 47 percent were female, most of which identified as heterosexual. Just 26 percent of infected men identified as homosexual or bisexual. Those numbers were even lower for women.

Breaking down the numbers by ethnicity, Alaska Natives and American Indians made up the majority of reported cases at 42 percent, but that doesn’t indicate they are more likely to contract the infection. “Some Alaska Natives might be more likely to have primary care physicians and choose to be tested regularly,” said Rogers. This could be due to the free or low cost healthcare they have access to. White people had the second highest infection rate at 27 percent.

Data also shows syphilis is mostly being contracted by people under 35 years of age in Alaska. Rogers said this might be related to a lack of stable relationships for younger adults.

While co-infections were low, the rate of infection among drug users and people with unstable housing was the same at 13 percent. However, both of these numbers are likely lower than the real rate of infection. “People who use drugs, people who are experiencing unstable housing may be less likely to have ongoing relationships with healthcare and might be less likely to get treated when they have STIs,” Rogers said.

The symptoms of syphilis include sores in the groin area or mouth, rash, fever, inflammation, weight loss, headaches, fatigue and patchy hair loss. But this fatal illness can be treated with simple antibiotics.

As a disclaimer, these numbers are based on reported cases, but more Alaskans are likely to be infected than the documented numbers. Current estimates suggest there are 54 cases per 100,000 people in Alaska.

To get tested for syphilis or other sexually transmitted infections, you can contact the Public Health Center in Fairbanks located at 1025 Barnette St. You can also visit the Planned Parenthood Fairbanks Health Center located in the Polar Wind Medical Center at 1867 Airport Way STE 140A , or talk to your doctor.