The number of Floridians testing positive for syphilis has spiked this year and the Tampa Bay area is contributing to the increase.
The state has seen a 14 percent increase in cases of infectious syphilis compared to the same time period last year. Florida had 736 cases of the sexually transmitted disease from January to September 2010. There have been 839 cases so far this year.
Infections reported along the I-4 corridor — from Pinellas County to the east coast — seem to be driving the uptick. Six counties along that route reported more syphilis cases this year.
It's unclear if the increase in syphilis is part of a trend among all STDs. The data shows a small increase in chlamydia (nearly 3 percent) and a slight decrease in gonorrhea (around 2 percent) so far. The number of HIV and AIDS cases in Florida are up compared to last year (33 and 11 percent), but officials caution that may be due to a change in reporting practices.
Health officials are keeping a close eye on the syphilis increase.
"It does concern us to see that," said Stacy Shiver, the bureau chief for the STD division at the state Department of Health. "Our fear with syphilis is always that there may be more out there and we don't know it because the symptoms are so stealth."
Syphilis, one of the oldest known STDs, often is referred to as the "great imitator" because the symptoms can mimic those of other ailments — and don't necessarily stand out as an STD.
For instance, people with syphilis may think they just have a cold or the flu because they have a fever, sore throat, fatigue or headache. They get genital sores, but they're often painless and go unnoticed.
"It's not the type of disease that people always know they have," said Lisa Cohen, public health services manager at the Pinellas County Health Department. "It can be painless."
The consequences are not.
Untreated syphilis can lead to brain and nerve damage, paralysis and death. Pregnant mothers can experience stillbirths, or pass it along to babies who in turn are developmentally disabled. Officials also say those with syphilis are at higher risk for getting HIV.
Locally, syphilis had its heyday in the early 1980s.
Back then, health officials said, Pinellas was dealing with about 25 syphilis cases a month. That dropped significantly in the following decades as awareness and prevention increased.
But early this year, health officials started noticing more positive tests for the disease. That trend continued through the summer.
Pinellas County has seen one of the biggest year-over-year jumps in this region.
At this time last year, Pinellas had 30 cases of infectious syphilis. This year, there have been 55 — about an 83 percent increase.
"It is a big deal," said Sherry Lewis, the STD program manager for Pinellas and Pasco.
Hillsborough had fewer cases this year compared to 2010. Hernando and Pasco counties also are down, with just five cases between them, compared to seven last year.
Nearly all the other counties in the I-4 corridor, including Orange, Polk, Seminole, Osceola and Brevard, have reported more syphilis this year.
So what's behind the spike?
Officials believe it has a lot to do with a population that can easily travel from Tampa Bay to places like Orlando to pick up sexual partners.
Health officials also began encouraging people to get tested more after they first noticed the spike in cases earlier this year.
They also say websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist make it easier for people to set up risky and sometimes anonymous hookups in which STDs can be passed.
"The rise of social networks has had a very interesting impact on disease intervention," Shiver said.
He said health workers have even been told about mobile phone apps that facilitate "hookups" using GPS technology.
"It's wild, but that's what's happening," he said. "This is the kind of new world we're dealing with."
Lewis heads a team of disease intervention specialists who track down those who have tested positive for STDs and link them — and anyone else who may have been exposed — to treatment and resources.
But that isn't always easy when people are reluctant to share information.
In Orange County, for example, disease intervention specialists are finding that 90 percent of the syphilis cases are resulting in "no name partners," said health department spokeswoman Mirna Chamorro.
She and Lewis said their field workers have increased their efforts to promote safe sex practices and educate more people about syphilis and other STDs. They're handing out more free condoms and are providing more free screenings.
"People don't want to talk about who they're having sex with," Lewis said. "They don't understand we're not only concerned with their health, but their partners as well. We want to prevent the spread of disease."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.