Syphilis cases in Portland, Oregon have risen in the past few years, and it has caused a public health concern in the region. Since 2012, the area has reported an average of 240 new cases each year.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that was nearly wiped out in 2000. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, says that there has been a spike in syphilis cases throughout the country. Health officials report that syphilis cases in the U.S. increased 10 percent from 2012 to 2013. Bisexual and gay men accounted for about 75 percent of the growth.

It becomes easier for a person with syphilis to get HIV as well. The CDC also claims that about 50 percent of people infected with syphilis are also likely to be infected with HIV.

"Syphilis is like the canary in the coal mine for HIV. People are going to be positive for syphilis before they are diagnosed with HIV. This means that there is a potential increase in HIV cases," says Dr. Jill Rabin, who is a professor at Hofstra North Shore, LIJ School of Medicine.

Kim Toevs with Multnomah County Health Department says that syphilis cases are increasing nationwide, but the region has exceeded the national average. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of syphilis cases in Multnomah County increased from 64 to 239. Prior to this period the average yearly count of syphilis in the region was between 10 and 30. The number of syphilis cases in Washington County during the same period increased from 16 to 70.

Toevs also revealed that sexually active bisexual and homosexual men are being less vigilant regarding the use of condoms, which is increasing the number of syphilis cases. Toevs is also blaming the increasing use of social media for the upsurge in the STD.

"We've also found a link to the increase of social media applications used to meet people online, [which is] true among heterosexuals and gays both," says Toevs. "The more points of connection with strangers they didn't know before, the more pathways there are to spread."

Health officials suggest that syphilis can be cured with penicillin. However, if the disease is left untreated, it can cause adverse health conditions such as hearing loss, blindness and neurological damage. Syphilis can also cause birth defects in children whose mothers were infected with the disease during pregnancy.

Portland health officials are urging homosexual and bisexual men, who have more than one partner, to get tested for syphilis once in every three months.

Photo: See-ming Lee | Flickr

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