As syphilis invades rural America, a fraying health safety net is failing to stop it

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By Lauren Weber, Kaiser Health News

When Karolyn Schrage first heard about the “dominoes gang” in the health clinic she runs in Joplin, Mo., she assumed it had to do with pizza.

Turns out it was a group of men in their 60s and 70s who held a standing game night — which included sex with one another. They showed up at her clinic infected with syphilis.

That has become Schrage’s new normal. Pregnant women, young men and teens are all part of the rapidly growing number of syphilis patients coming to the Choices Medical Services clinic in the rural southwestern corner of the state. She can barely keep the antibiotic treatment for syphilis, penicillin G benzathine, stocked on her shelves.

Public health officials say rural counties across the Midwest and West are becoming the new battleground. While syphilis is still concentrated in cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Las Vegas, its continued spread into places like Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma creates a new set of challenges. Compared with urban hubs, rural populations tend to have less access to public health resources, less experience with syphilis and less willingness to address it because of socially conservative views toward homosexuality and nonmarital sex.

In Missouri, the total number of syphilis patients has more than quadrupled since 2012 — jumping from 425 to 1,896 cases last year — according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of new state health data. Almost half of those are outside the major population centers and typical STD hot spots of Kansas City, St. Louis and its adjacent county. Syphilis cases surged at least eightfold during that period in the rest of the state.

At Choices Medical Services, Schrage has watched the caseload grow from five cases to 32 in the first quarter of 2019 alone compared with the same period last year. “I’ve not seen anything like it in my history of doing sexual health care,” she said.

Back in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a plan to eradicate the sexually transmitted disease that totaled over 35,000 cases nationwide that year. While syphilis can cause permanent neurological damage, blindness or even death, it is both treatable and curable. By focusing on the epicenters clustered primarily throughout the South, California and in major urban areas, the plan seemed within reach.

Instead, U.S. cases topped 101,500 in 2017 and are continuing to rise along with other sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis is back in part because of increasing drug use, but health officials are losing the fight because of a combination of cuts in national and state health funding and crumbling public health infrastructure.

“It really is astounding to me that in the modern Western world we are dealing with the epidemic that was almost eradicated,” said Schrage.

Grappling With The Jump

Craig Highfill, who directs Missouri’s field prevention efforts for the Bureau of HIV, STD and Hepatitis, has horror stories about how syphilis can be misunderstood.

“Oh, no, honey, only hookers get syphilis,” he said one rural doctor told a patient who asked if she had the STD after spotting a lesion.

In small towns, younger patients fear that their local doctor — who may also be their Sunday school teacher or basketball coach — may call their parents. Others don’t want to risk the receptionist at their doctor’s office gossiping about their diagnosis.