TAMPA — Hillsborough County is experiencing an increase in reported cases of syphilis, particularly among homosexual men.
So far this year, 126 cases have been reported — nearly a 65 percent increase from the 85 cases reported during the same period last year, according to the Hillsborough County Health Department.
Health officials say the rise reflects an increase in testing, which has been promoted by public health officials.
That's because syphilis has become more prevalent throughout Florida in recent years, particularly along the I-4 corridor. This year, Pinellas health officials say they have not seen a similarly alarming jump in syphilis cases, but they are concerned about higher than normal rates of chlamydia, another sexually transmitted disease.
In Hillsborough, those at greatest risk for syphilis are men who have sex with men, who account for 77 percent of the cases reported so far.
"I think people are just kind of turning a blind eye to it," said Steve Huard, spokesman for the Hillsborough Health Department. "Right now, we're having more issues with men having sex with men anonymously and unprotected."
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 example, people with syphilis may think they just have a cold or the flu because they have a fever, sore throat, fatigue or headache. They may see a rash on the palms of their hands or the bottom of their feet, or genital sores, but they're often painless and may go unnoticed.
Left untreated, however, syphilis can lead to organ failure, paralysis, dementia and even death. And people with syphilis face increased risks of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS.
But if caught in its early stages, syphilis is cured with a single shot of penicillin.
The best way to prevent syphilis is to abstain from having sex with an infected partner, Hillsborough health officials noted. Condom use can also help to protect against the spread of the disease.
Syphilis can be diagnosed with a simple blood test at a physician's office or health clinic. Free and low-cost testing is available through county health departments.