Home Local News Syphilis a rising public health concern in Richmond County

Syphilis a rising public health concern in Richmond County

Kendra Faries of the Richmond County Health Department reviews local syphilis statistics for the Richmond County Board of Commissioners on April 2. Photo by William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — The rise in cases of a treatable sexually transmitted infection has raised alarm bells in Richmond County and across the state.

The Richmond County Health Department has seen an increase in syphilis in recent years and landed the STI as an emerging concert in the State of the County Health Report.

Kendra Faries, public health and human services educator, presented information to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners on April 2.

Faries said the SOTCH report was based off the 2023 Community Health Assessment, and that congenital syphilis is one of the county’s top emerging health issues.

“It’s usually ignored by men and women, both,” Faires said about the early stage of the bacterial infection.

Symptoms, she said, usually appear during the second of four stages.

“But if you are symptomless, you may not end up with that treatment and then you will progress all the way into the tertiary stage,” Faries said.

So far this year, there have been 27 documented cases of syphilis: 12 men; 12 women; and three infants.

According to the Health Department, the infants were born with congenital syphilis to three of the 12 women.

“Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother with untreated syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy or at birth,” the SOTCH reads. “This is concerning because 40% of babies born to women positive for syphilis can result in a stillbirth, infant death, bone and joint deformities, ear nerve damage, as well as ongoing infection for months to years.”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a public health alert in November of 2023 following five five stillbirths or neonatal deaths in the first nine months of the year.

Provisional data from NCDHHS shows there were 63 cases of congenital syphilis statewide in 2023, resulting in 10 infants being stillborn or dying within 28 days of birth. That was a 28% increase from the previous year.

Richmond, Anson and Robeson counties are among the one-third with a case rate of 75 or more per 100,000 in 2023, according to NCDHHS.

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In 2019, Faries said, the few cases the county had were caught before they could progress to the later stages.

Graphic from Richmond County Health Department

Richmond County’s syphilis numbers have been on an upward trajectory since 2020, when there were only two cases. There were 15 reported cases in 2021, 34 in 2022 and 28 in 2023. (Note: That data is also preliminary.)

Of the cases in 2022, 24 were caught in the primary and secondary stages, while 10 weren’t discovered until the early latent stages. The following year, those numbers were 11 and eight, respectively.

There have been more statewide cases caught during a later stage than earlier stages from 2018-2023 in women 18-44, according to NCDHHS. In 2022, there were 735 women from that age group diagnosed late, compared to 889 diagnosed in the two other sets of earlier stages combined.

“This is concerning because it can have such bad consequences,” Faries said.

“We want to urge everyone, if they have multiple partners — or if you or your spouse have multiple partners — you need to get tested,” Faries continued.

Fairies added that health care providers are encouraged to collect a comprehensive sexual history of their patients to determine if they need syphilis testing “because it’s so easily passed between partners.”

State law requires all women get tested at least three times during pregnancy, she added. “We try to urge providers to all do that.

A study from NCDHHS found that many pregnant women who tested positive had little to no prenatal care, incomplete testing or adequate treatment, according to Faries.

“Hopefully, going forward, we can combat this,” she said.

Richmond, Anson and Robeson counties are among the one-third with a case rate of 75 or more per 100,000, according to NCDHHS.