Graphic courtesy of Metropolitan Health District.

Syphilis may not be the most talked-about sexually transmitted disease (STD), but it remains a prevalent health issue in San Antonio. Metropolitan Health District reported a decline in syphilis cases since 2013, but the number of syphilis cases in San Antonio are still three times higher than the rest of Texas, and more than seven times the national average.

“For the first time this year, we have actually seen the changing direction in STDs here in San Antonio,” said Dr. Anil T. Mangla, the assistant director of Metro Health’s Communicable Diseases Division, during a press conference on Tuesday. “The key is making sure that people are tested, they are identified, and then treated. The decrease is good news, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Graphic courtesy of Metropolitan Health District.
Graphic courtesy of Metropolitan Health District.

Since 2012, Metro Health has collaborated with nonprofits and hospitals throughout Bexar County to reduce syphilis in adults and prevent the number of congenital cases. A disease without symptoms in the early stages, syphilis can damage essential organs like the heart, lungs and brain.

Congenital cases occur when pregnant women with syphilis transmit the disease to the baby in utero. If the baby is born before the cure is administered, they are more likely to be stillborn or to develop life-long health issues.

Staff members credited Metro Health Director Dr. Thomas Schlenker with making the identification, community education, and treatment of syphilis a priority in San Antonio.

“I moved here from Wisconsin, where congenital syphilis is a rare disease. We might have had one in the entire state the year that I moved there, so when I saw an average of 10 here every year in San Antonio, I was just shocked,” Schlenker said.

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“Over the past three years, probably the biggest thing has been getting the local medical community to be aware that there was this terrible epidemic going on, they just didn’t know,” Schlenker added. “The goal has to be zero; there’s just no reason in the United States today that this is happening – we have to work until we get to zero.”

Metro Health found the biggest numbers of untreated STDs and congenital cases in lower-income areas of San Antonio and jails, where residents are less likely to have insurance or doctors.

Health officials noted that the number of primary and secondary syphilis cases in Bexar County dropped by 24% from 2013 to 2014, and the number of congenital cases in Bexar dropped by 70% between 2013 to 2014. Click here to download Tuesday’s statistical presentation on STDs in Bexar County.

The local health community hopes to completely eradicate syphilis cases through initiatives and recent legislation like SB 1128, which requires every Texas doctor to test pregnant women three times throughout their pregnancy, so any required treatment can be administered at least 30 days before their delivery date. The law also applies to women in jail who are often unable to get screening services during incarceration. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill last week, and the law is expected to take effect by Sept. 1.

“We know that women can be exposed to the disease in between trimesters,” said Dr. K. Ashok Kumar, the immediate past president of Bexar County Medical Society. “The screening is very important, and getting the community and physicians involved is needed to grow.

“We need to go to the people who are being affected by these diseases, regardless of your economic place in the community, every man and woman should be tested,” Kumar added.

Metro Health has already prevented 34 congenital cases through an aggressive case management system, which tracks and tests women throughout their pregnancy. Metro recently acquired a new mobile unit, which is slated to open in mid-to-late August, and will serve as an extension of their clinical operations

“We are definitely excited to get this, it’s going to make the outreach so much easier to facilitate and provide a private, confidential space,” said Gisel Prado, the senior management analyst for Metro Health. “We’ll also providing treatment for chlamydia and gonorrhea in the field, which is something we are not doing. That’s going to be really important to the community, because they are so common.”

Metro Health will offer free testing services for National HIV Day at the Walgreens at Medical Center on June 25-26 from 4-7 p.m. and June 27 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

For those individuals interested in finding upcoming events or scheduling testing services, call Metro Health Outreach at 210-207-8839.

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Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.