LIMA — Allen County health officials are tracking a syphilis outbreak that has seen six pregnant women and two infants infected in the last two years.
The sexually transmitted infection, which was once the target of public health campaigns to eliminate the disease from the U.S., can cause brain damage, blindness, deafness and even death when left untreated.
The outbreak began last year as Allen County health officials identified 28 syphilis cases, including four pregnant women and two infants— a 40% increase from 2020.
Health officials have identified another 18 syphilis cases, two of whom were pregnant, through June of this year.
“When we started seeing these cases, it alerted us that there was going to be a problem,” said Dr. Wilfred Ellis, an infectious diseases physician and president of the Allen County Board of Health.
Contact tracers have been working to identify other partners who may have been exposed. At times, Ellis said, those partners have been identified in other states or counties due in part to the prevalence of online dating apps, a new risk factor.
Many of the cases identified last year had developed late-stage neurosyphilis, while several others had developed ocular or otospyhilis—syphilis of the eyes and ears, Ellis said.
While the infection is treatable with antibiotics, the symptoms of primary and secondary stage syphilis are often painless and go unnoticed: a sore develops near the source of the infection for three to six weeks, followed by a faint rash or sores in the mouth, private areas or on the palms and soles of a person’s feet.
But left untreated, the disease may spread to the brain, nervous system, eyes and ears.
In rare cases, syphilis may progress to the tertiary or late stage in which the disease damages internal organs, possibly resulting in death.
And for pregnant women, untreated syphilis introduces the risk of passing the infection on to the child, who may in turn suffer from cataracts, seizures, hearing loss or death.
A similar trend is occurring elsewhere in Ohio and the U.S., undoing decades of disease elimination efforts.
The Ohio Department of Health sent a letter to health care providers in April urging them to screen at-risk pregnant women for syphilis in the third trimester and just after delivery to prevent congenital syphilis.
Ohio law requires pregnant women to undergo syphilis screening at their first prenatal visit.