A few years ago, my friends and I would joke about the Syphilis posters that suddenly popped up all over Cincinnati, looking more like hip-hop albums than STD public service announcements. I did not know it at the time, but Cincinnati was in the middle of a crisis. In 2012, Hamilton County (in which Cincinnati is located) declared a Syphilis epidemic. Hamilton County had the highest rates of syphilis in the state of Ohio, and the sixth highest rates of syphilis in the entire country. Cincinnati’s rate of syphilis was almost nine times higher than the national average.
As I have become involved in advocating for reproductive health, I have also become more aware of the very real problem of sexually transmitted infections in the community. Syphilis, in particular, is an STI that is very easy to treat, if caught early, but that can cause long-term complications if left unchecked. Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics (often penicillin!). However, treatment will not undo damage that has already happened if not found and treated soon enough. Late stage syphilis can occur 10-30 years after the initial infection and include symptoms such as paralysis, blindness, dementia and death. Learning about the declaration of the epidemic back in 2012, I wanted to look into what the statistics were like now and whether Cincinnati had improved or not.
I compared Cincinnati’s data with the county, state and country. I visited the health department websites for each of the locations. The CDC contains lots of information on national STI statistics, but they do state that because so many cases go undiagnosed and unreported, the true numbers are often much higher. Ohio’s Department of Health publishes reports on different STIs, with breakdowns of the rates of cases in all Ohio counties, as well as major cities. Hamilton County Department of Public Health publishes a Syphilis Quarterly Report with numbers of syphilis cases reported each month.
Even after getting tested for STIs, many people do not come in for final test results and do not refer their partners for testing and treatment. As well, there is simply not enough money or personnel to follow up with all the positive tests for STDs. On a national level, the CDC estimates that sexually transmitted infections account for almost $16 billion in health care costs.
Here are the rates of syphilis (number of cases per 100,000 people) from 2011-2014 for the United States, Ohio, Hamilton and Summit Counties, Cincinnati, Akron, and three other large U.S. cities, for comparison:
Although Cincinnati’s numbers are not anywhere near where they should be, they have seen some improvement. So what happened? While the Cincinnati Health Department does not frequently publish STI statistics for the city (I got all the Cincinnati statistics from the Ohio Department of Health), they did collaborate with Xavier University to put out information on what is being done to combat the syphilis epidemic. The Cincinnati Health Department was a recipient of the Ohio Department of Health Sexual Transmitted Diseases grant. With this, they worked to inform the public of the outbreak, and encourage testing, through radio, television and posters (like the one I saw back in 2012). The Cincinnati Health Department also began offering free Syphilis testing at its clinics. The CDC even partnered with Cincinnati to go door-to-door in some neighborhoods, informing the public about syphilis and offering testing. Hopefully the numbers continue to decrease as people work – at the national, state, and local levels – to raise awareness of the importance of safe sex practices and getting tested early.