Syphilis Is Movin' On Up

Ashley Lewis

Syphilis rates in New York City have increased by 8 percent in 2013 according to the Department of Health’s annual report. The Department of Health stated in their report that Chelsea had the highest rates of syphilis infection estimated to be six times the citywide average. Despite the city’s efforts to curb STD infection rates by opening free testing clinics, distributing condoms, and educating health officials on syphilis, STD infection rates continue to increase. The question is why?

Young gay men of color under the age of 29 are the most prevalent cases of new syphilis infections each year according to David Lopez, Harlem United associate vice president of prevention, a nonprofit organization for AIDS advocacy. He said these infections are widespread among clients who engage in risky sexual activity because they are transient, homeless or participating in survival sex. Most young people perceive the health risks to be low when it’s fairly easy to contract.

Citywide Syphilis Infection Rates Among Different Races

Syphilis can be contracted from unprotected intercourse, oral sex, or even kissing. In the first stage of the infection, a painless canker sore forms in the mouth or genitalia area. After the canker sore disappears the infection will enter the second stage, which causes rashes on the palms of the hand, soles of the feet, shoulders and neck area. If not diagnosed or treated properly, the infection will progress into the dangerous third stage and enter the brain causing long-term damage.

“It’s really important for people to understand how easy it is to contract syphilis so they realize that it’s a part of their routine check up with their physician and a part of their routine HIV test,” said Jason Cianciotto, public policy director at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center (GMHC), a nonprofit organization in Chelsea that offers mental and health services to the LGBTQ community.

Cianciotto said a lot of stigmatization and shame revolves around sexuality and sexual orientation because of the anti-gay rhetoric in regards to the HIV epidemic. This public discrimination can lead to poor health outcomes such as HIV education and a lowered desire to be tested regularly.

Due to the prevalent LGBTQ community in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, Cianciotto said the social networking between small minority groups creates a higher context of risk when people only connect with each other in that community. According to the Department of Health report, there were no new infections reported among women in Chelsea.

Syphilis Rates in Men

Health clinics are another issue in the city Lopez said. "Alot of the clinics are limiting their hours or testing capacity and so that has an impact. Harlem United tries to incorporate that by using an integrated testing approach so if folks are coming in to get tested for HIV we also test them for STDs," Lopez said.

Cianciotto said many GMHC clients didn’t feel comfortable going to clinics in their own neighborhoods because they were afraid of discrimination or being spotted entering the clinic by a family member or friend.

“For example, we have a lot of clients who travel to GMHC in the 34th Street corridor from Brooklyn and Queens. They don’t want to go to a clinic in their area. Of course you want resources in the area but people will also travel to where they most feel comfortable getting the resources,” said Cianciotto.

There are also not enough health campaigns focusing on STD education overall like there are for HIV and AIDS awareness Lopez said. He said there needs to be a citywide campaign and more education that represents the communities they need to reach.

“So what we need is the ability to target education and prevention messages where people are who need them the most,” Cianciotto said.