‘Risky online hookups' cited in dramatic rise in syphilis cases

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WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WNCN) – Wake County, North Carolina health officials are sounding the alarm on a notable rise in the number of patients with syphilis. They are also concerned that "online hookups" could be behind the spike.

"When patients visit our clinics complaining of symptoms consistent with syphilis, we ask them a series of questions to help inform our diagnosis," said Dr. Sue Lynn Ledford, public health division director at Wake County. "Questions asked include a patient's number of sexual partners, as well as information on where they met those partners. A striking number of patients who are diagnosed with syphilis said they met their partners online."

Newly-released statistics show the syphilis rate in Wake County at a 15-year high. According to the Wake County Public Health Division, that rate has more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.

"We are concerned about the alarming rise in syphilis cases," said Dr. Ledford. "The outbreak is affecting people of all ages and backgrounds, and sexually risky online hookups may be contributing to the spread of new cases."

Among the age groups affected, there is concern about the rise in syphilis cases involving interaction between teenage males and adult men. Health officials are also concerned because over 50% of those with syphilis also have HIV.

In response to these statistics, Wake County's HIV/STD Community Program plans to take the following steps.

  • Encouraging and providing syphilis testing, outreach, education and condoms
  • Providing information through social media sites that are used for anonymous sex, as well as through Facebook
  • Encouraging parents to talk with their children about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases
  • Providing treatment for people with syphilis and their known partners
  • Coordinating and sharing information with healthcare and community partners and other health departments across the state

Officials are also planning to host a free training for health care providers on March 22.

If you live in Wake County and want to get information on testing and treatment for syphilis or HIV, call 919-250-3950 or visit the Wake County Human Services website.