Clark County outpaces state in syphilis case rate

Tara Wagner, a clinic resource nurse, prepare a rapid syphilis test at the Clark County Combined Health District's main office on Friday.

Combined ShapeCaption
Tara Wagner, a clinic resource nurse, prepare a rapid syphilis test at the Clark County Combined Health District's main office on Friday.

Clark County has the highest case rate of syphilis in Ohio, with the entire state seeing a rise of cases among adults, including pregnant women.

An outbreak of syphilis has been ongoing in Clark County since September of 2020. According to ODH, in 2019, 36 cases of syphilis were reported. In 2020, the total number of cases reported jumped to 83, and per 2021 preliminary data, 104 cases were reported.

Data from the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) for 2020 shows that Clark County has a syphilis case rate of roughly 60 per 100,000 people, outpacing Cuyahoga County’s rate of 41.7 and Franklin County’s rate of 47.6.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease and is a bacterial infection that can be cured, but it can cause long-term complications, and even death, if not treated.

Clark County Combined Health District assistant health commissioner Chris Cook said that the case rate of the STI was “fairly level” from 2016 to 2019, staying within the range of 27 to 33 cases per 100,000 people.

“We’ve seen this precipitous increase over the past few years,” Cook said. “We saw that exponential rise going from 2019 to 2020.”

ExploreFeces, assumed to be human, sent to Ohio GOP senators through mail

Preliminary data for 2022 is unclear, but Cook said that testing and clinics for the health district’s reproductive health demonstrates that the outbreak is ongoing.

Also unclear is the cause of the increase in syphilis cases locally, Cook said, but the increase could be influenced in part by the trade of drugs: people who are using substances trade sex for drugs or money. Cook said that increases in STIs and overdose rates often “run parallel.”

Nationally, the highest rates of the STI exist among men who have sex with men, Cook said. Cases among pregnant people, however, are also increasing nationally.

Congenital syphilis cases — the spread of syphilis to a fetus — increased from 19 cases in 2019 to 48 cases in 2021 statewide, according to preliminary data from ODH.

Two cases of congenital syphilis were reported in Clark County over the last three years, but the number of infected pregnant individuals is increasing, according to the health district.

With appropriate prenatal treatment, babies born to these individuals did not become infected with syphilis.

Pregnant women in Ohio are typically tested in their first trimester for syphilis, but the health district highly recommends that they also test for syphilis within their third trimester, Cook said.

Explore2 dead, 5 seriously injured, including 3 children, in Clark County crash

Symptoms of syphilis vary, depending on what stage the disease is in: early signs can include rashes, lesions or sores, but sometimes an infected person displays no symptoms. Many times, sores from the infection can heal without treatment, so the disease may remain undetected. Later stages of the disease can affect the heart, brain, and other organs of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The health district is combatting the outbreak by providing increased testing and screening for sexually transmitted infections, contact tracing and raising awareness of the outbreak.

The health district provides rapid testing at the Sexual Health and Wellness Clinic at Southern Village Plaza, located at 1209-3 Sunset Ave. in Springfield, and the Sexual Health and Wellness Clinic at the health district’s main office, located at 529 East Home Road Springfield.

Cook said people at high-risk for syphilis — men who have sex with men and people who have multiple sexual partners — should have conversations with their partner to determine their risk factors.

“There’s a level of awkwardness when talking about it. But you can’t ignore it, you can’t pretend it’s not happening,” Cook said. “Our choices do affect other people, and their health… we have that responsibility to other people that we care about, love or just interact with to have those real conversations.”

The health district advises calling 937-390-5600 for more information or to make an appointment.

About the Author