COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Central Ohio health officials are warning of an increase in syphilis cases, a trend mirroring a rise of infections nationwide.

Columbus Public Health is raising awareness about the local outbreak and is encouraging at-risk individuals to get tested and treated if necessary. The warning comes as the rate of infectious syphilis cases rose 9% nationwide in 2022, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on sexually transmitted diseases in adults.

(Courtesy Photo/Columbus Public Health)

Total syphilis cases surpassed 207,000 in 2022, the highest count in the United States since 1950, according to the data. While the bacterial disease continues to have a disproportionate impact on gay and bisexual men, it is expanding in heterosexual men and women, the CDC said.

About 59,000 of the 2022 cases involved the most infectious forms of syphilis. Of those, about a quarter were women and nearly a quarter were heterosexual men. Still, nearly 80% of men with syphilis have sex with other men, and half of those diagnosed with syphilis are living with HIV.

In Ohio, syphilis cases reached 5,306 in 2022, marking a hefty increase from the 1,923 cases in 2018, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The number of cases in the state has steadily risen since then with 2,016 cases in 2019, 2,446 in 2020, and 3,970 in 2021.

Columbus made up 1,414 of Ohio’s cases in 2022, compared to 391 in 2018, the state’s department of health data shows. The capital city saw 432 cases in 2019, 542 in 2020 and 1,104 in 2021.

Who should get tested?

Everyone having sex should get an STI check-up at least once a year, according to CPH. Those with a higher risk should consider adding syphilis screenings to a three to six-month HIV testing scheduling, including:

  • Pregnant women, in their first and third trimesters and at delivery.
  • Men who have sex with men.
  • Transgender women who have unprotected sex.
  • Anyone who has sex with someone who is HIV positive.
  • Those who share equipment when injecting steroids, hormones, silicone or drugs.
  • People who have sex for a living or exchange sex for drugs.
  • Individuals who have been diagnosed with syphilis in the last 12 months.
  • Anyone with a sexual partner who is engaged in the behaviors on this list.

Syphilis is transmitted when people come into direct contact with a syphilis sore during anal, vaginal or oral sex, CPH said. Early signs of infection can be mild: Usually small and painless sores or a rash that doesn’t itch, which can be easy to overlook. Health officials said this is why it’s a good idea to use protection, like condoms and dental dams, in addition to getting tested regularly.

Where can I get tested?

A simple blood test can detect syphilis right away, and can even be checked during a routine HIV test. Syphilis testing is available for little or no cost at the following locations:

  • Columbus Public Health at 240 Parsons Ave.
    • 8 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Monday
    • 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Tuesday
    • 8 to 11:15 a.m. Wednesday
    • 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday
    • 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Friday
  • AIDS Healthcare Foundation at 815 W. Broad St.
    • 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday
    • 1 to 5 p.m. on Thursday
  • AIDS Resource Center Ohio at 4400 N. High St.
  • FACES Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital at 700 Children’s Dr.
    • 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday
    • 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday
  • GCMS at 1780 E. Broad St.
  • Out of the Closet at 1230 N. High St.
    • 2 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday
  • Stonewall Columbus at 1160 N. High St.

Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics, CPH said. Still, treatment doesn’t undo the serious damage syphilis can do to your heart, brain and nervous system. Plus, having syphilis once doesn’t protect you from getting it again, which is why health officials recommend regular testing as part of your health care plan.

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