Alaska is experiencing the largest syphilis outbreak in at least 40 years, according to the state health department, which is seeking help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to respond. 

The outbreak was first reported by the agency in March 2018. As of Oct. 22, the Alaska Section of Epidemiology received 75 reports of infections syphilis throughout the state, according to an update from the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) on Tuesday. 

Susan Jones, HIV/STD Program Manager at the Alaska Division of Public Health, says it’s the highest number of infectious syphilis cases reported to the state in any year since the 1970’s, “It actually can be before that but that’s as far back as we have saved data.”

Anchorage had the most cases reported, with 64. Eight-eight percent of all cases were reported in men.

Only nine of the 75 reported cases were women: Eight were of childbearing age and two were pregnant at the time syphilis was diagnosed.

One infant born in March 2018 was diagnosed with a probable case of congenital syphilis. The child’s mother had been diagnosed in 2017.

DHSS wants to warn Alaskans about who is most at risk for the disease. “The majority of cases are men who are having sex with other men,” Jones says.

The symptoms include sores, rashes and hair loss. Those will go away, but the person is still infected and can infect others, and internal damage will continue to progress.

The infection is a serious problem, but the prognosis is good if you get treatment right away, Jones says, “It’s easy to acquire syphilis by having sex with somebody with infection, it’s easy to have the disease and not be aware of it and it’s also easy to treat if we catch it early.” If it’s caught in time, syphilis can be treated with an antibiotic injection.

State epidemiologists have asked the CDC for help in responding to the outbreak. They’re gathering information from individuals who are at higher risk for infection and clinicians who care for patients with STDs with two anonymous surveys.

One anonymous survey is for individuals who have what the health department calls “risky” sex, like unprotected sex and sex with someone you don’t know. The goal is to uncover information about sexual behavior that might be driving the outbreak.

Another anonymous survey is available for providers, aimed at figuring out what’s driving the outbreak and to better understand contributing factors.

But Jones says this syphilis outbreak is just the latest in a string of other widespread sexually transmitted diseases, “Alaska has ranked number one in the nation for chlamydia, the sexually transmitted bacterial infection, since 2001. Since last summer we’ve been in the middle of a gonorrhea outbreak,” she said.

DHSS says it isn’t interested in exposing anyone as having an STD, it wants people to get tested and treated. “What we want to do is control infection,” Jones says.

After the results of the surveys are in, the CDC will compile the information and advise the state on next steps.

A previous version of this story misidentified Susan Jones as Susan Brown.

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