Milwaukee syphilis cases highest in two decades, preliminary data shows

The town’s battle against syphilis continues and Keenan Health Center remains a crucial location for treatment services. (NSS file photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

Milwaukee saw its highest total of syphilis cases in two decades in 2021, more than doubling rates from 2020.

The city has recorded 441 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, according to preliminary data from the Milwaukee Health Department. This comes after Milwaukee recorded 183 cases in 2020.

Data is subject to change as there are still cases being tracked. Dr. Heather Paradis, Milwaukee Health Department’s chief medical officer, said the full year-end report is expected to be released in May. She did not anticipate that the total number of cases would change drastically.

“These are hard numbers and reflections of what we’re seeing,” Paradis said. “And talking to our clinical partners across the city who look after STD services, they’re feeling those numbers as well.”

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. The early stages of the disease, primary and secondary syphilis, are the most common and can lead to a number of symptoms, including genital sores, unexplained rashes, swollen lymph nodes and fever.

If left untreated, the disease can lead to tertiary syphilis, an advanced stage of the disease that can affect organ systems like the heart, blood vessels, brain, and nervous system, although these cases are rare.

From 2001 to 2019, the county hasn’t had a year with triple-digit syphilis cases, health department data shows. SurvNeta set of disease statistics for Milwaukee County.

The recent spike has particularly affected women of childbearing age, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Historically, men who have sex with men have been primarily affected by syphilis.

The spike in women of childbearing age has led to an increase in cases of congenital syphilis, a disease in which newborns contract the disease at birth. These numbers are also increasing in Milwaukee County. Congenital syphilis can have permanent effects on a child’s health and lead to death.

Paradis said the health department investigated 19 cases of congenital syphilis in 2021, a staggering increase from previous years when only one or two cases would occur each year. This figure is also preliminary and subject to change upon further investigation, she said.

Public health consultant Melissa Ugland said the numbers were disheartening. Reaching at-risk populations and getting them tested and educated was key, she said.

“From a prevention standpoint, like any other disease under the sun, the sooner you catch it the better,” Ugland said.

Paradis said the department plans more community outreach for this year, including traveling to high-burden areas and reaching out to health workers about how to detect and diagnose syphilis.

Racial disparities abound

According to a report from the Milwaukee Health Department, about 66% of the city’s syphilis cases from 2018 to 2020 were among black residents, compared to 15% among white and Latinx populations. Data on other racial and ethnic groups were not included. There was no racial and ethnic breakdown available for the preliminary 2021 data.

Why the spike in syphilis cases? A definitive answer is elusive, but experts point to certain probabilities.

Meghan Benson, director of community education for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said the pandemic is making it harder to access preventative care.

Some barriers to accessing sexual health clinics include location of services, lack of transportation and mistrust of health care systems, she said. Part of the challenge is also getting people to feel comfortable seeking services in the face of stigma.

“People can have feelings of shame or guilt,” Benson said. “We don’t talk about it much either – people don’t have all the information they need.”

Ruthie Burich-Weatherly, president of the Milwaukee Board of Health, said the city needs to ensure adequate staffing and funding for the health department to carry out prevention efforts, increase education and awareness of the problem, and continue to do awareness.

“We want to avoid, essentially, a syphilis outbreak within a pandemic,” Burich-Weatherly said.

Where to find help

Syphilis panties of the Department of Health Services are available in English, Spanish and Hmong on its website.

Free or low-cost tests are available at local health centers, such as as Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and Milwaukee Health Services.

The Milwaukee Department of Health maintains a list of places to get tested in the area.

Contact Milwaukee Health Department’s Keenan Health Center, call 414-286-8840. It is located at 3200 N. 36and St.

BESTD Clinic, 1240 E. Brady St., offers syphilis testing. Dial 414-272-2144.

Holton Street Clinic, 3521 N. Holton St., offers free syphilis and HIV testing. Dial 414-264-8800.

To contact Planned Parenthood and schedule an appointment, call 844-493-1052 or visit their website and select “Book Online”. Planned Parenthood has several locations around the city. You can find health centers near you at this link.

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