OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The number of syphilis cases connected to an outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease in Bartlesville has grown to 17, state health officials said Thursday.
That number is expected to climb over the next few weeks as health officials conduct additional tests, said Chang Lee, director of intervention and prevention at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
``As of today, it stands at 17 cases, all in Bartlesville,'' Lee said Thursday. ``We expect to see two or three more cases before we turn the corner on it.''
By comparison, only one case of syphilis had been identified in Washington County over the previous five years.
Lee said authorities were alerted to the situation in May, when the disease was detected in a woman in her 20s. The woman was a methamphetamine user and told officials she sometimes exchanged sex for drugs, Lee said. The additional cases were linked to the woman's sex partners.
``The majority have been identified, and most of them are still in the process of being followed up on,'' Lee said. ``The folks we're tracking are somewhat transient, so it's difficult to find them.''
Syphilis is a bacterial infection and can be deadly if it's left untreated. The first symptom is often a painless, open sore where the person came into contact with the bacteria. Several weeks later those infected may develop a skin rash. The disease then may go into a latent stage, producing no symptoms for months or years. The final stage of syphilis can damage the nervous system, heart and eyes and can even cause death.
``People may not even know they have it,'' said Brenda Davis, coordinating nurse at the Washington County Health Department. ``That's the important thing. If people think they might have been exposed, they need to get tested.''
The disease can be treated easily with penicillin or other antibiotics, Davis said.
There were about 160 total cases of syphilis reported to health officials in 2005, Lee said. That number has continued to increase slightly over the last several years, following a national trend, Lee said. Most of the increase has been attributed to an increase in the number of cases among gay men, which Lee said makes Oklahoma's outbreak slightly unusual.
``What makes the case in Washington County unique is that it was all heterosexual cases,'' Lee said. ``The majority of our cases nationally, about 60 percent, are from (men having sex with men). Washington County is reversing that trend.''