'Syphilis detectives' encounter dangerous work in OKC outbreak: 5 things to know

With 199 cases reported this year, Oklahoma City has been particularly hard-hit by the national resurgence of syphilis, according to a comprehensive report from The New York Times written by Jan Hoffman, a reporter with the Times' science desk since 2013.

Here are five key takeaways from the report.

1. Syphilis is a potentially deadly sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. The illness can incite blindness, paralysis and dementia. While previously thought to be on the verge of eradication — most physicians haven't seen a case since the 1990s — the illness has been making a comeback in recent years.

2. Nationally, almost 24,000 cases of early-stage syphilis — the stage in which the illness is most contagious — were reported in 2015, marking a 19 percent increase from a year prior. In 2000, there were 5,970 total syphilis cases reported in the U.S., compared to nearly 75,000 in 2015.

3. A significant portion of those affected by the syphilis outbreak in Oklahoma City have been gang-affiliated, which is indicative of the other public health crises currently impacting Americans: the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic. Users often trade sex for drugs, which fuels the spread of syphilis.

4. The situation in Oklahoma City has made the jobs of public health workers uncommonly dangerous.

"To locate possible patients and draw their blood for testing, Oklahoma's syphilis detectives have been knocking on doors in dilapidated apartment complexes and dingy motels, driving down lonely rural roads and interviewing prison inmates," wrote Ms. Hoffman. "Syphilis has led them to members of 17 gangs; to drug dealers; to prostitutes, pimps and johns; and to their spouses and lovers, all caught in the disease's undertow.'"

5. More than half of those infected in the Oklahoma City outbreak have been female. Thirteen of the women were pregnant. Three stillbirths have been attributed to syphilis in Oklahoma City this year.

To read the full report, click here.

More articles on infection control: 
CDC: 60% of teens received HPV vaccine in 2016 
Alabama health officials create infectious disease identification network 
NIH takes aim at tick-borne illness with new infection model

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