The incidence of syphilis in Queens and New York City rose in 2003 for the sixth year in a row, particularly among white men and gay men, new data show.
With a preliminary estimate of 531 cases reported in the five boroughs last year, there was a 22 percent increase from 2002, when 434 cases were reported, according to city Health Department figures released last week.
Relative to the other boroughs, the rate of infection in Queens was relatively low. There were 3.1 new cases per 100,000 residents last year, compared with 6.6 cases across the city.
But infections are growing at approximately the same rate in all boroughs. “One thing to keep in mind is that people living in Queens may have partners living in Manhattan,” said Andrew Tucker, a Health Department spokesman. “That’s why it’s important to know your status.”
The number of new syphilis cases reported last year is but a fraction of the 4,265 cases reported in 1990. Nonetheless, the cases have risen six-fold since 1998, troubling epidemiologists.
“We attribute the rise to an increase in risky sex,” said Dr. Julia Schillinger, who monitors the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases for the Health Department. “We have found syphilis is a primary risk factor for HIV infection.”
Among the new syphilis cases interviewed at city-run clinics, more than half reported having HIV. By causing open wounds and fissures in the skin, syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases make HIV easier to get or to spread.
The city is also seeing a correlation between syphilis and recreational drugs, including alcohol and crystal methamphetamine. “Drugs do impair responsible decision making, and the combination of drugs and unsafe sex is making the cases rise,” Schillinger said.
To raise awareness of the risks, the city is sponsoring education and screening nights at bars that cater to gay and bisexual men. Attendees receive free screenings for STDs, as well as smoking cessation services, vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, influenza and pneumonia.
Doctors note that syphilis is serious, but curable and preventable. Left untreated, however, it can result in permanent damage to the heart, brain, and nervous system that may not become apparent for years.
The Health Department recommends that men who have sex with men and men who are HIV-infected be tested for syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases regularly. Women engaging in high-risk sexual behavior should also be screened for syphilis.
The city runs 10 health clinics, including two in Queens (34-33 Junction Boulevard in Corona, tel. 718-476-7815 and 90-37 Parsons Boulevard in Jamaica, tel. 718-262-5569) that offer free testing and counseling. Clinic hours and information can also be obtained by calling 311.
“Our main message is that everyone should ideally know the status of anyone with whom they are having sex and discuss it openly,” Schillinger added. “This is a life-threatening illness.”