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Early syphilis rates have nearly tripled in this population of Santa Barbara Co. residents

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Posted at 6:25 PM, Sep 08, 2023

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has released the most recent data on sexually transmitted infections within the county over the last four years.

The county says among residents of child-bearing age, early syphilis rates nearly tripled between 2021 and 2022, impacting some newborn infants.

In Santa Barbara County last year, 112 early syphilis cases were reported.

Health officials say they are unsure what to expect this year as cases continue to rise.

According to the Santa Barbara County Health Department, the increase of early syphilis in the county has contributed to increases in congenital syphilis, which affects the fetus.

County health officials say they have had 10 congenital syphilis births within the last five years, with most of them occurring in just the last two years.

“The female rate and the female rate among childbearing age has tripled between 2021 and 2022. In addition, in 2022, Latinos had a rate of syphilis that was three times higher than that we see in our white non-Hispanic residents,” said Joy Jacobsen, Santa Barbara County Health Department Senior Epidemiologist.

The CDC says babies born to women with untreated syphilis can have deformed bones, severe anemia, and brain and nerve problems.

Dr. Stephanie Zamora from Dignity Health says pregnant women should seek prenatal care if they have been exposed to the disease.

“It can definitely affect the fetus and lead to a condition that leads to congenital syphilis, which just means it is syphilis that they contracted while they were still in the womb, and that can have detrimental effects on that baby and the life they are going to live,” said Dr. Stephanie Zamora, Center for Women’s Health at Dignity Health.

The CDC says symptoms for syphilis are typically followed by a progression of stages that can last for weeks, months, or even years.

The first stage is followed by a single chancre mark that is usually firm, round, and painless.

“You can sometimes have a little bump which we call a chancre and that is painless, so you know, most often people feel pain and that prompts them to go to the doctor, but when you don’t have pain and you may not see that bump on your body, you may think you might not have it,” Dr. Zamora said.

She says penicillin is commonly used to treat pregnant women.

Despite the shortage of medication to treat syphilis occurring nationally, local health officials have been trying to accommodate their patients' needs.

“It’s definitely something we want to pay attention to and get the word out to our public, as well our providers, so that people can be more aware about syphilis,” Jacobsen added.

“Our pharmacy team is obviously looking at, you know, all the time to come up with alternatives if we ever reach that point that we don’t have medication for our patient,” Dr. Zamora said.

She says the best way to find out if you have a sexually transmitted infection is to visit your primary healthcare physician and schedule an STI exam.

The Santa Barbara County Health Department says about two out of every three cases of early syphilis countywide are residents in northern Santa Barbara County.