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Health Officials Warn of Possible Syphilis Outbreak

June 12, 2013, 11:34 AM HST (Updated June 13, 2013, 10:56 AM)
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The state Department of Health is warning of a possible outbreak of syphilis on the Big Island.

Although the five cases reported over the past five months occurred in Kona, state health officials said they were issuing the warning to raise awareness of the situation which could extend to other areas or islands.

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In the five-year period prior to 2012, the Big Island had a total of four cases of syphilis, health officials said.

A medical advisory was sent Monday to physicians statewide, the department said in a statement issued today. It said the recent cases mostly involved gay men.

“While we know there are several cases from West Hawaii, there may be people who are infected and unaware of their illness, who have traveled to other islands,” said Luke Hasty, program coordinator for the STD/AID Prevention Branch of the DOH.

Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted disease or STD passed from one person to another by a specific bacterium during unprotected sexual contact. Syphilis can cause long-term complications and even death if not adequately treated, the statement said.

Early signs of syphilis, often a small ulcer or sore on the sex organ, may be overlooked as the ulcer is often painless and may go away on its own. Signs and symptoms of syphilis that develop later on often mimic symptoms due to more common disorders (symptoms such as skin rashes, mouth sores, fever, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue) and are often missed or resolve without treatment.

A blood test is the most common way to determine if someone has syphilis, Hasty said.

Timely antibiotic treatment provides an effective cure of syphilis infection. Untreated syphilis infections can last for many years and result in damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, liver, bones, and joints, ultimately resulting in death.

Infection with syphilis also increases the likelihood of HIV transmission and acquisition. Officials said it is critical that all sexual partners of an infected person be tested for infection, even if no signs of infection or illness are recognized.

Members of the public with questions or concerns about possible syphilis infection should contact their healthcare provider, or call the Department of Health at 974-4247 on the Big Island, at 733-9281 on Oahu, 821-2741 on Kauai or 984-2129 on Maui.

Fact sheets regarding syphilis are available at http://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/STDFact-Syphilis.htm.  Additional information for the public and healthcare providers is available on the DOH website at http://hawaii.gov/health/healthy-lifestyles/std-aids/index.html.

***Updated with additional information on Thursday, June 13.***

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