Sexually transmitted disease rate rising

State health officials say Alaska is experiencing a growing outbreak of syphilis, with the number of cases more than doubled in 2019 over 2018.

Overall combined rates of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are at all-time highs both in Alaska and nationally, according to a new report from the Department of Health and Social Services.

State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said this is a reminder that as Alaska battles the COVID-19 pandemic other outbreaks also need everyone’s attention.

The July 30 issue of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology Bulletin emphasizes the drivers for the increase and notes several contributing factors, such as more infection among heterosexual men and women, and some of those infected reporting illicit drug use and homelessness. The increase in case reports among women raises the risk that a mother could pass the infection on to her baby during pregnancy.

The syphilis outbreak in Alaska was first declared in 2018, with 114 cases reported. In 2019 that number jumped to 242 cases.

Many factors contribute to syphilis transmission including methamphetamine and/or heroin use, a history of incarceration within 12 months and homelessness.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact, which starts as a painless sore and may not be noticed. It is easily curable and early treatment after exposure can prevent the infection, state health officials said.