Syphilis infections in Kitsap County are at their highest rates in 10 years.
“Syphilis cases nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021,” said Yolanda Fong, director of Community Health for Kitsap Public Health District.
Cause of the increased infections is hard to pinpoint but it seems that limitations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are a factor.
“We cannot say for certain why syphilis cases increased from 2020 to 2021. The increase in Kitsap was in line with a statewide increase. It is likely that some cases went undiagnosed and unreported in 2020, when access to healthcare and other support services was significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, fewer cases may have received treatment during the pandemic, leading to increased transmission,” Fong said.
A surge in sexual activity as people came out of COVID hibernation is another factor that likely contributed to higher case counts, according to others in the health field.
Syphilis cases in Kitsap County climbed from 26 in 2020 to 50 in 2021, health district statistics say. The upward trend appears to be continuing this year. Though July, the preliminary case count had already reached 38.
Of the reported infections, 86 percent involved men, according to district data collected between 2017-20. The median age is 33.
Despite those record levels, Kitsap County is still faring better when compared with state and national averages.
Kitsap County’s case rate is “substantially lower” than the state’s numbers, Fong said. Further, the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) here are typically around 60 percent to 70 percent lower than U.S. rates, she added. Nationally, there was a 26 percent spike in new syphilis infections last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Syphilis is a bacterial disease that surfaces as genital sores but can ultimately lead to severe symptoms. If left untreated, syphilis can spread to the brain, the nervous system and other parts of the body, according to the CDC.
For the past five years rates of other STIs in Kitsap County, including gonorrhea and chlamydia, have consistently been below the rates in other parts of the state and the U.S., according to the public health district.
Gonorrhea rates are normally 25-45 percent lower than the state average and 35-50 percent lower than the U.S. rate. Meanwhile, chlamydia cases in Kitsap County typically run 5-10 percent lower than the state rate and 15-30 percent lower than national rate. Chlamydia diagnoses have remained below pre-2020 rates.
“Prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, is a major focus of our communicable disease program,” Fong said. “Our team interviews cases, notifies close contacts, and facilitates testing and treatment for cases and contacts. This process helps to control the spread of disease and ensure cases receive the care they need to avoid serious, long-term illness.
“Our team also provides education in the community, including in schools, regarding STI prevention, and with local health care providers to encourage screening, testing and treatment for STIs, including testing for sexual partners of cases.”
People who are sexually active with multiple partners are at higher risk for getting sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, health officials say.
“You can reduce your risk for STIs by limiting sexual partners, practicing safer sex, including wearing condoms, and discussing STI testing with your health care provider and partners,” Fong said.
Additional funding for public health programs is critical to ensuring cases are detected early and steps are taken to slow the spread of the disease, she said, adding it is important that communities promote easy access to health care so people can get tested and treated as quickly as possible.
Looking ahead, national health officials envision home-test kits being made available for some STDs — much like home pregnancy tests — to make it easier for people to learn if they are infected and take action to prevent spreading it to others.