November 6, 2008

Groups Educate to Prevent Another Syphilis Outbreak

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In the wake of reporting the nine syphilis cases identified in Tompkins County last April, Gannett Student Health Services, Tompkins County Department of Health, Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College joined forces to provide testing, education and materials surrounding this often overlooked sexually transmitted disease.
According to Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations for Gannett, of the nine individuals that tested positive for syphilis last semester, two were women and seven were men. Four of these individuals were members of the Cornell community and three of these four were epidemiologically linked to another resident of Tompkins County. All four individuals in this cluster identify as men having sex with men (MSM) and some connections were linked to partners found on the Internet.
“The spring cluster of syphilis cases was a wake-up call that this particular STD hasn’t gone away,” said Nina Cummings, Gannett health educator.
According to Jennifer Austin, Gannett communications specialist, over 400 individuals sought testing at Gannett and Planned Parenthood facilities since this report was released. This number is roughly twice the amount of HIV and syphilis tests that are typically administered.
“The media attention placed on the syphilis cases [last spring] was helpful in getting many people in for testing who may not have otherwise done so,” Austin said.
Gannett found no new positives through testing. However, according to Theresa Lyczko, public information officer of Tompkins County Health Department, two more individuals tested positive through Planned Parenthood and the health department’s testing facilities. Neither of these cases are epidemiologically linked to the original cluster of four. One of the individuals is not a resident of Tompkins County, but was identified as a primary syphilis case, meaning that the person was still infectious.
Only residents of Tompkins County that test positive are represented in the Tompkins County Department of Health statistics. The second case is a resident of Tompkins County, but is a late latent case, meaning that the disease was contracted over a year ago. All individuals who tested positive or came in claiming that they had been in contact with any of the positive individuals received treatment immediately.
“None of the individuals who came to Gannett following the press release tested positive. However, continued vigilance and testing is needed, as there are still many unidentified partners of those who tested positive for syphilis last spring. At least one of these individuals was also co-infected with HIV,” Austin said.
With this in mind, Gannett Health Services, Tompkins County Department of Health, Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, Ithaca College’s Hammond Health Center and Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Health Center formed a community collaborative last April to spread awareness and education regarding STDs, specifically syphilis. The project urges people to get tested and educate themselves about the multitude of resources available, their own sexual health and that of partners.
“No one agency or health care provider can address syphilis elimination alone. We needed to form local partnerships to develop strategies best suited for our community,” said Karen Bishop, a members of the Tompkins County Health Department.
The collaborative, which originally focused on the syphilis cases, hopes to continue working together to disseminate information regarding sexual health in general. According to Austin, Tompkins County Department of Health recently received a grant for $15,000 earmarked for initiatives like the collaborative to bring together the skills and resources of the community. Austin speculates that the money will go to creating a website and more promotional materials for various audiences.
“The outreach that Gannett, along with our community partners, continues to develop will help sexually-active individuals identify signs and symptoms of all STDs. Further outreach by the TCHD to local healthcare providers encourages them to consider STDs when patients present symptoms that may warrant testing and treatment,” Cummings said.