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Orange County is among the highest syphilis case rates in Florida

National syphilis cases increased by 80% between 2018 and 2022. Likewise, Florida saw a 62% increase in cases during the same time. Orange County was among the areas with the highest cases. In 2021, it made up nearly 10% of all state cases.
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National syphilis cases increased by 80% between 2018 and 2022. Likewise, Florida saw a 62% increase in cases during the same time. Orange County was among the areas with the highest cases. In 2021, it made up nearly 10% of all state cases.

Experts say syphilis is a growing concern in Orange County. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published research that showed syphilis cases had spiked from 2018 to 2022. Cases of babies born with syphilis were a particularly concerning spike.

What’s puzzling about the sexually transmitted disease is that experts aren’t clear why it’s making a large comeback.

The CDC said syphilis cases increased around America by 80% between 2018 and 2022. Florida also saw a large increase in that time frame, experiencing a 62% jump, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Central Florida Cases

Among the counties with the largest case rates were Brevard and Orange in Central Florida. In 2021, Orange County made up about 10% of nearly all cases in the state that year. Black men, in particular, showed the largest increase in cases in the county.

Orlando Health’s hospital and clinics are receiving a steady pace of syphilis patients, said

Dr. Jarod Fox, chairman of the hospital’s infectious disease department. He said he still sees at least two to three syphilis patients a week. As a result, Fox thinks the CDC’s 2023 and 2024 are on track to have even higher case totals.

“2022 was already a big year for syphilis. We’re hoping it starts to level out, but we've been still seeing quite a few cases. So I imagine that that number will be at least a little higher than it has been previously,” he said.

Orange County experienced a 70% increase in cases between 2018 and 2022, not far off the national trend. The CDC report also saw an increase in infants born with syphilis, which can occur if a mother has already been infected and not received treatment – known as congenital syphilis.

“The bacteria they call the syphilis can cross the placenta and infect the babies,” Fox said.

Fox doesn’t treat babies but does treat Orange County mothers who have come to Orlando Health testing positive for syphilis.

“So we have seen an uptick in congenital syphilis (in Orlando) as well which is concerning even more so than syphilis in general,” he said.

Why is it happening? And what to do?

The beginning of the increase occurred at the same time experts saw case totals rise for all kinds of sexually transmitted diseases, Fox said.

STD rates appear to be leveling off, but syphilis is continuing its rise, Fox said.

“Why have they started to level off and syphilis is rising? I'm not sure because usually most of the same issues that cause one sexually transmitted infection are usually the same things that lead to other STDs,” he said. “It's kind of difficult to say why syphilis is increasing, but I would say maybe because in primary infections where patients are most infectious is usually when the patients don't recognize their symptoms and maybe aren’t getting treatment for it at the time and they're able to transmit it to other people.”

Syphilis has many symptoms including developing painless ulcers around the groin. They can spread to palms and the bottom of feet and cause a myriad of other symptoms: fever, fatigue, and patchy hair loss. The disease can become latent and show no symptoms years later without treatment. In late stages, 10 to 30 years later, syphilis can be deadly spreading to major organs including the brain.

Fox says abstaining from sex is the only foolproof way to avoid catching syphilis, but using protection is a good way to keep from adding to the growing statistics as well. Patients believing they may have come into contact should get tested and then get appropriate treatment from a medical professional.

Originally from South Florida, Joe Mario came to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida where he graduated with degrees in Radio & Television Production, Film, and Psychology. He worked several beats and covered multimedia at The Villages Daily Sun but returned to the City Beautiful as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel where he covered crime, hurricanes, and viral news. Joe Mario has too many interests and not enough time but tries to focus on his love for strange stories in comic books and horror movies. When he's not writing he loves to run in his spare time.
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