JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – The country is seeing a steady rise in the sexually transmitted infection syphilis, and Mississippi is not an exception. The number of cases has more than doubled in 3 years in the state. That’s why health officials have been urging the public to talk about two easy precautions that seem to remain taboo in conversations – condoms, and testing.
“Back in the early to mid-nineties, we had the highest rates of syphilis in the country, and we’ve made some good progress with that. In 2013 we were down to one of our lowest levels,” Mississippi’s State Epidemiologist, Dr. Paul Byers, said.
In 2013, the Mississippi Department of Health reported 263 cases of syphilis. By 2014, that number grew to 531. There were 624 cases the next year. In 2016, 821 people were diagnosed with the disease, with more than 60% of the 821 being African-American men.
Dr. Byers says individuals who identify themselves as men who have sex with men are also seeing an increase. “However, it doesn’t help us to stigmatize or isolate the virus because it’s a virus. So it’s not a virus that’s going to respect boundaries of communities. Everybody needs to be tested,” Deja Abdul-Haqq, Environmental and Policy Change Manager for My Brother’s Keeper, Inc. said. My Brother’s Keeper, Inc. is a non-profit organization that focuses on enhancing comprehensive health practices in minority communities. It is also affiliated with The Open Arms Healthcare Center.
According to Dr. Byers, most of the cases of syphilis that are being diagnosed are in the earlier stages. “In the first year of syphilis…it’s very important to identify those individuals and get them treated. But the treatment is very easy and effective.” However, if left undiagnosed and untreated, syphilis will progress to the third stage, and can eventually cause heart problems, blindness, infertility, and even death.
Mandatory blood testing for marriage licenses ended right before Mississippi saw the drastic jump in cases. “The only mandatory reason that a Mississippian would have had to have been screened before 2012 was to get married. They stopped that,” Abdul-Haqq said. Those on the front lines fighting disease say partners simply aren’t having conversations about sexual health. That’s why Open Arms is providing a free way for individuals and couples to get tested without the awkwardness. Asking for the “Becoming a Healthier You” program covers BMI, glucose, cholesterol, and various sexually transmitted infections screenings. “So instead of isolating STIs, the idea is to get the patient to understand everything about you is important, including whether or not you’re positive for syphilis,” Abdul-Haqq said.
And if you’re not infected, the next step is prevention. Abdul-Haqq says the key to lowering Syphilis in Mississippi is getting people to stop being afraid of condoms. Open Arms and county clinics across the state offer free condoms at their offices. The Aids Services Coalition in Hattiesburg is making it even easier by delivering condoms right to your door. It’s as simple as placing an online order.
“One of the things we don’t want to do is have barriers set up for people to have access to testing, to have access to treatment. So it’s important for people to be aware of it, to know their risks, and to feel comfortable speaking with their doctor about that,” Dr. Byers said.
If you’ve had sex with someone who has been diagnosed with syphilis in the past three months, the department of health will go ahead and provide treatment to prevent the virus from developing.
Open Arms Health Care Center
805 E River Place
Jackson, MS 39302
Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday 8:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.