Health officials target town’s syphilis cases

First Posted: 1/15/2009

ST. PAULS - Health officials plan to go door-to-door next month to find out why St. Pauls had more than half the syphilis cases reported in the county last year.
Of the 46 reported syphilis cases in Robeson County during 2004, 26 were in or near St. Pauls.
County health officials say they think they know the underlying reasons for the upsurge in cases here, but conducting door-to-door blood tests will help pinpoint causes.
Karen Woodell, a health educator with the county Health Department, said a team of local and state volunteers called RIOT - Rapid Intervention and Outreach Team - will spread out across St. Pauls on April 22 and April 23, asking residents if they would submit to a free blood test for syphilis and HIV. The volunteers will also hand out information on the diseases.
Woodell said St. Pauls residents are not required to take the test, but she hopes that most residents will want to. They will be informed of the results in about two weeks.
“We want to go ahead and get in there, do some outreach to get those numbers down before they get worse,” Woodell said.
Woodell said syphilis is typically spread through prostitution and having unprotected sex, and that cases often cluster among people who know each other. That same behavior can spread the HIV virus, which is also passed on through the sharing of needles by people who inject drugs.
Health Director Bill Smith said there have been similar outbreaks in other towns. The Health Department conducted a door-to-door campaign in Lumberton several years ago.
“The hot spot is St. Pauls now, but it has previously been in the Maxton area,” Smith said. “Two years ago it was the Shannon area. What happens is as you get the contacts, when you get into the community, those contacts are very close. So somebody in St. Pauls is not going to name somebody in Rowland. The more intensely you look at an area, it becomes the largest caseload at the time. It kind of rotates around.”
In 2000, Robeson County, had the highest rate of syphilis in the nation. Smith said the county is now probably about the third worst in the state for syphilis cases.
“A lot of it has to do with the nature of the disease, because the symptoms go away so you tend to think you're OK,” Smith said. “If you don't seek treatment when you have lesions or rashes, a couple of weeks later you think, well, I must have been wrong. You get denial and you're still infecting others … .”
Smith said symptoms of syphilis include lesions on the genitals and a rash on the palm of the hands, but that some people are asymptotic.
“The key is, if you don't know who you've been with, you need to go ahead and get tested,” Smith said. “The real problem is, if you get syphilis you can get cured, but you could have also gotten HIV or AIDS.”

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