Officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) are working to reverse a sharp increase in syphilis infections across the state by encouraging individuals to recognize the symptoms and seek free, confidential testing when needed.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection which can easily be treated with antibiotics. However, symptoms can often be mistaken for common skin irritations. Symptoms usually appear as a painless lesion, a sore that can be misidentified as a pimple, or an ingrown hair or skin irritation that could be mistaken for a rash or dry skin. The sore will eventually heal and go away, but the infection remains and can still be passed on without proper treatment.
“It‚s vitally important that people understand the signs and symptoms of syphilis,” said Terrainia Harris, director of the OSDH Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service. “Treatment can cure the infection, but it can‚t undo the damage that has already been done. We need to ensure that people get tested and receive treatment quickly.”
Testing is important, especially for those who are or may become pregnant. The infection can pass to an unborn baby, known as congenital syphilis, which can result in neurological and developmental problems, blindness, deafness, seizures, low birth weight and even stillbirth.
Left untreated, syphilis in adults can cause blindness, severe neurological damage, bone damage and even death.
Testing for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be done free and confidentially at any county health department.
Health officials encourage all sexually active individuals to get tested for STIs at least once. Those who are at higher risk of infection – those not in monogamous relationships, have multiple sexual partners or engage in higher risk behavior should test more frequently.
The CDC reports congenital syphilis continues to be a consequence of the U.S. syphilis epidemic. In 2021, over 2,600 cases of congenital syphilis were reported. Those at higher risk for a syphilis infection include young people ages 15-24, gay and bisexual men, pregnant people and racial and ethnic minority groups.
More information can be found at oklahoma. gov/health/syphilis.
In addition to free STI testing at county health departments, the Oklahoma HIV and Hepatitis Planning Council have created a program that allows Oklahoma residents to order free condoms online at endinghivoklahoma.org.