It’s confirmed: there’s a dangerous syphilis outbreak happening in Palm Springs.
Public health officials in Riverside County say the number of cases reported in Coachella Valley, specifically Palm Springs and North Palm Springs, is ten times the national average. The source of the outbreak is still undetermined, KMIR is reporting, but men who sleep with men make up most of the cases.
Medical officials are working to minimize the spread by educating residents, encouraging testing and providing treatment.
Syphilis is transmitted through blood, semen, and skin contact with open sores, via unprotected anal and vaginal sex, or by sharing needles. The primary infection is usually evidenced by sores on the genitals, anus, or mouth, although they can appear anywhere on the body. But these sores often disappear after one or two weeks, when the disease goes dormant in a carrier. It’s in this phase that syphilis becomes difficult to diagnose.
And even when it’s dormant, syphilis is still contagious.
A second stage is characterized by a rash, with other symptoms including fatigue, itching, mouth ulcers, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, and rectal lining inflammation. The final stage has no symptoms, but can lead to blindness, brain damage, or organ failure.
“Knowing who our partners are, using protection, limiting those partners and making sure that everybody is getting an [STI] check-up,” is the key to prevention, says Marcella Herrera-Carpenter, program coordinator for the Riverside University Health System.
The Riverside County Syphilis Community Collaborative will an inaugural meeting on May 15, part of a “Spotlight on Syphilis (S.O.S.) campaign to address the crisis. Health officials hope that, by sharing ideas and information, they can develop useful strategies and goals.
The spread of syphilis has been a growing issue for some time in California: In Riverside County, the rate is about 12 cases per 100,000. In Coachella Valley that rises to 32 per 100,000, and within Palm Springs the figure is well over 100 cases per 100,000.
At 185 cases per 100,000, North Palm Springs has the highest rate of syphilis in Riverside County.
“We have been dealing with this for a number of years,” says Herrera-Carpenter, “and essentially we need to start thinking outside the box.”