In an Aug. 24 New York Times article, reporter Jan Hoffman tracked a new wave of syphilis outbreaks in Oklahoma. Keep in mind syphilis was practically wiped out not long ago, and most doctors who have been in practice for two decades or less never or rarely treated the disease. Yet, as with other entirely treatable maladies like hunger and Islamophobia, Oklahoma is out in front of the pack.
The cause for this resurgence is directly tied to the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics as users begin to trade sex for drugs. Because the disease is rapidly spreading in Oklahoma, state health inspectors are deploying to investigate residential areas where people known to be carriers of the disease live. Hoffman describes the phalanx of inspectors as “syphilis detectives,” which really takes the romanticism out of those Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett novels that CFN loved as preschoolers.
Nationally, syphilis has tripled its incidence since 2015, going from 24,000 cases nationwide to 75,000, and while the disease can be cured with a shot of Pfizer’s Bicillin, the antibiotic is on the Federal Drug Administration’s list of current shortages. Furthermore, the Trump Administration is proposing a 17 percent cut to programs designed to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
State health inspectors tracked the disease to the activities of 17 gangs, who were spreading syphilis through sharing needles or sexual activity. Babies are being born with this disease and are dying needlessly as the opioid crisis grimly marches on.
The resurgence of syphilis and the growing incidence of the disease in 2017 Oklahoma feels not just a little like bubonic plague or cholera making a red dirt comeback. We’re not ready for people’s noses to start falling off like they did 90 years ago in the pre-penicillin age. It was a disease most epidemiologists thought was going the way of dark, back-alley opium dens, but as the staggering toll of the current opioid epidemic continues to emerge, it seems everything old is new again.