HILO — The discovery of five syphilis cases in the past five months in West Hawaii — more than the past five years on Hawaii Island combined — has the state Department of Health warning the public to take precautions in their sexual activities.
The outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease was discovered mostly in men who have sex with other men in West Hawaii, but health officials are concerned that the infection could spread to other islands because of interisland travel.
“We know that there are probably more that have the infection than have been reported,” Luke Hasty, program coordinator for the STD/AIDS Prevention Branch of the Health Department, said Wednesday.
Physicians are required to report syphilis cases to the state, and because individual physicians may not be aware there are others with the disease, the numbers are compiled and released to raise awareness of the issue among health care providers and the public, he said.
Hawaii usually has a low syphilis rate, with just 1 case per 100,000 population, compared to the national average of 4.5 cases per 100,000 population, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s far less common than it used to be,” Hasty said, “but caught early, it is easy, very easy, to treat.”
People who think they may have syphilis, or are concerned their sexual partner does, should go to their health care provider for a blood test.
There is only one STD clinic in the state, and it is on Oahu.
Hawaii Island saw four reported cases of syphilis in the past five years. In 2011, there were 14 reported syphilis cases in the state, all among males and primarily whites and blacks, according to the CDC.
Syphilis is passed from one person to another by a specific bacterium during unprotected sexual contact. It can cause long-term complications and death if not adequately treated.
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, such as skin rashes, mouth sores, fever, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue, that develop later on often mimic symptoms of more common disorders.
Timely antibiotic treatment effectively cures syphilis infection.
But the best course is prevention, Hasty said. Using a condom is the best preventative technique.
“People who engage in unprotected sex, regardless of ethnic background or sexual orientation, are at the highest risk,” he said.
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.
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, health officials said.
Members of the public with questions or concerns about possible syphilis infection should contact their health care provider, or call the Department of Health at 733-9281 on Oahu, 821-2741 on Kauai, 984-2129 on Maui or 974-4247 on Hawaii Island.