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Mecklenburg County Sees 'Outbreak' Of Syphilis

Mecklenburg County is stepping up efforts to combat an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease that health officials thought they'd already eliminated ten years ago. In 2009, the number of syphilis cases in North Carolina more than doubled and Linda Flanagan says health officials were alarmed. At that rate, it wouldn't take long "for syphilis to be out of control," says Flanagan, who manages HIV/STD community services for Mecklenburg County. This is also the county with the most syphilis cases in the state and one of the highest rates per-capita. The disease is back with a vengeance across the nation, prompting federal health officials to give North Carolina and several other states money to spread the word. "People just don't think about syphilis as being a problem anymore," says Flanagan. "For a lot of young people it's something that happened in the dark recesses of history." Another problem, says Flanagan is the symptoms of syphilis are "easy for people to ignore." In the early stages, there may be small sores or even a rash - but generally not much discomfort and then those symptoms go away. Flanagan says the bacteria quietly continues to damage the organs leading to paralysis, blindness, dementia or even death. If caught early, Flanagan says syphilis can be treated and cured with a simple dose of antibiotics. A North Carolina health survey found young black men who have sex with men are particularly at risk in the current outbreak. However, Flanagan says anyone having unprotected intercourse or other forms of sexual contact can get syphilis. The Mecklenburg County health department is airing radio messages and has a new a web page and hotline (704-532-TEST) urging people to get tested for syphilis.