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Alaska sees 49% increase in syphilis infection rates in 2020

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska health officials say 361 cases of syphilis were reported in 2020, a 49% increase over the previous year.

The numbers didn’t surprise Susan A. Jones, an Anchorage-based public health nurse consultant and the HIV/STD program manager with the state health department, who was involved with a report on the continuing syphilis outbreak.

“In some ways, I’m surprised there aren’t more cases,” she told the Juneau Empire.

Last year’s count included eight cases of congenital syphilis, which occurs when an infected mother passes the infection on to the newborn.

Untreated syphilis can cause fetal death and about 40% of untreated babies with the infection die, she said.

Alaska’s syphilis outbreak was first declared in early 2018, and case counts have increased annually since. Jones said she’s worried about Alaska’s numbers in the future.

“The pandemic drained much of our public health resources. I wouldn’t be surprised if our numbers surpassed this in 2021,” she said.

The rise in cases indicates people are not seeking medical services, a situation exacerbated by pandemic-related concerns, Jones said. As the pandemic wanes, more people will seek services and get diagnosed, she said.

Without treatment with antibiotics, syphilis can spread to the brain, nervous system or eyes, health officials said.

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