FOR THE LAST FEW YEARS, Los Angeles County health officials have relied on Phil the Sore -- a pus-filled red cartoon character sporting an angry frown, a buzz cut and an earring -- to warn people about the dangers of syphilis. Phil is gross to look at and maybe in bad taste, but we could forgive that if he were doing a better job.
Earlier this month, public health officials announced that syphilis infections in Los Angeles County rose 41% last year to 1,217 new cases, a worrisome spike that surprised health officials, who had predicted that the infection rate would fall. Infections increased the most among gay men, mirroring a trend nationwide. Locally, however, they also rose among women and minorities, who accounted for more than half of all new cases.
The concern is twofold: Although the disease can be treated with antibiotics, many who get infected don’t realize it; and, in late stages, the disease can lead to blindness and can cause severe complications in pregnant women. The broader worry is that increases in syphilis infections typically lead to sharp increases in HIV infections -- those who have the disease can more easily transmit HIV because of recurring sores. For the same reason, people who have syphilis are at higher risk of contracting HIV.
On Wednesday, the county Board of Supervisors requested that the public health department come up with a strategy by next week to identify and treat those who are infected and to assess current syphilis prevention efforts. With any luck, they’ll ship Phil off to early retirement and put together a more comprehensive plan to quickly reach out to the gay and minority communities, especially those in South Los Angeles, where infections are climbing the fastest.
To reach women, who often know their recent sexual partners, the health department needs to immediately track down as many of them as possible who were recently diagnosed and make sure they, and their partners, are treated. It may be harder to reduce rates among high-risk gay men, but it’s vital to do so to avert a wave of new HIV infections.
When health officials provide them with a new prevention strategy next week, the Board of Supervisors should find the resources to fund the plan and stem new syphilis infections.