Oklahoma County 10th in nation in syphilis cases

Tuesday, October 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Health officials are planning a campaign in Oklahoma County to knock out a disease that is relatively rampant there but that many view as a relic: syphilis.

While it hardly seems a threat compared to more contemporary diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Oklahoma County 10th among 25 counties nationwide that contain more than half of the nation's syphilis cases.

"This is a real problem here," said Ray Fugate, a CDC employee assigned last year to help Oklahoma County reduce its syphilis cases. "We're working with the community and the Health Department to get it under control."

Fugate hopes to begin testing jail inmates for the disease, noting it has helped slow the incidence in other cities.

The Oklahoma County jail does not test incoming inmates for syphilis.

Oklahoma itself ranked ninth in syphilis rates with 5.6 cases per 100,000 people, but the problem is centered in Oklahoma County, which accounted for 122 of the 187 syphilis cases reported in the state in 1999.

For states, Tennessee had the highest rate with 11.8 cases per 100,000. Elsewhere, Arkansas had 3.4 cases per 100,000 and Texas had 2.4 cases.

Marion County, Ind., which includes Indianapolis, had the most cases with 407.

The CDC began focusing on problem counties last year as part of a plan to eliminate syphilis in the United States.

Reported cases of the disease have dropped from a high of 70.9 cases per 100,000 people in 1946 to just 2.5 per 100,000 in 1999.

The disease is a bacterial infection that starts with a painless sore followed by a rash. It can be deadly if it progresses to the heart or brain.

Susan Browder, disease intervention specialist for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, said the department has stepped up efforts to find and treat the sexual partners of those who test positive for syphilis.

"We are flooding the community with interviewers," Browder said.

Federal funds that resulted from the report's findings last year will allow the department to hire more workers. Browder said treatment will be offered to those who test positive for syphilis as well as for their sexual partners from the past three months.

Doug Ressler, associate director at the Tulsa City-County Health Department, said Tulsa has kept syphilis rates lower than Oklahoma County through aggressive tracking of syphilis patients' sexual partners.

Despite such efforts, Tulsa reported 45 cases of syphilis in 1999, up from 14 in 1998 and eight in 1997.