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Public Health officials urge STI tests amid rise in syphilis cases in King County

The CDC says rates across the nation are rising, and King County is seeing a similar trend, with significant increases from 2020-2021 and 2021-2022.

SEATTLE — This week the Centers for Disease Control released data showing an increase in several forms of sexually transmitted infection, including a 32% increase in syphilis between 2021 and 2021. 

Public Health - Seattle & King County (Public Health) says it, too, has been seeing a rise in syphilis, particularly accelerating among people having contact that could result in pregnancy. Public Health says many of the new cases are "concentrated in a vulnerable population of people who are often living homeless and/or using substances." 

The agency is particularly concerned with a rise in congenital syphilis, which it says occurs when a fetus acquires the infection in the uterus before birth. According to Public Health, there were three cases of congenital syphilis in 2019, 11 in 2021 and 12 in 2022. 

That finding prompted the department to issue recommendations, along with the Washington State Department of Health, advising that all sexually active women 45 and under in Washington state who have not had a syphilis test since January 2021 should test for syphilis.

"We have an epidemic which has really taken off, and that's really concerning," said Public Health HIV/STD Program Director Dr. Matthew Golden. "What we've seen locally is actually more dramatic than what the CDC has been reporting."

Golden says the agency has taken an aggressive stance on the problem. Along with promoting new screening guidelines, it's working to provide more frequent testing for especially vulnerable populations, including testing in the jail and through outreach to people experiencing homelessness.

"We have a very vulnerable population which doesn't have good access to care, which [includes some people] potentially engaging in commercial sex, which includes some people using methamphetamine; it's a tough problem," Golden said.

He recommends that anyone having sexual activity with a new partner get tested.

"The key thing right now is we want to make sure we're testing everybody at least once," Golden said. "I think that it's certainly a reasonable thing to be tested for STIs, including syphilis, when you're having new sex partners. I think this is a little bit of an individual-level decision beyond that but I think that's a good protective plan."

Golden says condoms are also protective and recommended.

"These are an effective, relatively inexpensive, protective action people can take," Golden said. "So I would urge people to use condoms at least for a while as they start new relationships."

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