BFHD reports a spike in Syphilis cases in the Tri-Cities

KENNEWICK, WASH. — The Benton-Franklin Health District (BFHD) has been tracking the rate of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), for the past 10 years in the Tri-Cities. BFHD has seen a record number of syphilis cases in 2021, with a 78% increase in Benton County alone and cases already recorded in 2022; public health officials said they are concerned. 

“Syphilis is an old infection, it’s been around for centuries, but in modern times we’ve seen the rate of syphilis increase and decrease. Last year it took a sudden spike up.” – Heather Hill, RN

The Communicable Disease Program Manager at BFHD, Heather Hill, who is also a public health nurse with decades of experience, said syphilis could be misdiagnosed because lesions or sores are typically not painful and the symptoms usually go away. 

“Then you can get a rash on your body. Again, there are a lot of things that can cause rashes on your body. So you go and get seen for a body rash, and unless you are open and honest with all of your symptoms and you have a good conversation with your provider, testing for syphilis may not happen,” Hill said. 

Washington State has also seen an increase at around 50 sphyilis-congenital cases, which is when a pregnant mother passes along the disease to her baby, according to Hill. In the Tri-Cities, BFHD has reported three sphyilis-congenital cases, which Hill said is a significant number. 

“Three cases in one year may not sound like a lot of cases but considering the fact that we went years and years without any congenital syphilis cases. This is a warning sign; this is telling us if we are seeing pregnant women passing syphilis to babies, we’re going in the wrong direction with disease prevention,” Hill said.

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Hill said the most important thing you can do if you suspect syphilis is to get tested because it is easily treatable, especially if you catch it early. 

The CDC recommends that pregnant women test for syphilis during the first trimester, third trimester, and at delivery if there is a known risk. Hill said the more you test and are open and honest with your doctor; you can protect yourself and your loved ones and make sure you don’t pass it on to anyone else unknowingly. 

“If left untreated again, the effects can be devastating, from brain damage and ocular problems to, unfortunately, death. It can get into your nervous system and cause neurosyphilis and the best time to get treated is very early in the infection,” said Hill. 

To learn more about syphilis, its symptoms, and how it spreads, visit the CDC’s website.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) are the most commonly reported diseases in the community and Washington State. 15 to 24-year-olds account for half of all new STD infections. Many are curable; others are treatable; all are preventable. Most people with STDs don’t have obvious symptoms, but without treatment, they can spread the disease and possibly develop serious complications. -Benton-Franklin Health District

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