Syphilis cases plunge in city

Two-thirds decline since peak in 1997 is part of U.S. trend

November 29, 2001|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Four years after Baltimore topped the charts nationwide in syphilis, cases of the sexually transmitted disease have dropped by nearly two-thirds, according to new figures released yesterday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The decline, part of a national trend, stems from a combination of efforts over the past few years, including outreach to addicts, education of physicians and testing and treatment of those arrested at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

Another crucial element has been advice from churches, hospitals and community groups on strategies for stopping the epidemic.

"It seems to be working," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner. "We've gotten to a tipping point."

According to the new figures, syphilis cases last year in Baltimore dropped by about 12 percent compared with the previous year, to 218 cases. Combined with the decreases in 1998 and 1999, that adds up to a two-thirds drop from the 1997 peak of 669 syphilis cases. At that time, the city's rate of syphilis cases was more than double that of Memphis, Tenn., which had the second-highest rate.

The numbers for last year put the city fifth in the CDC's nationwide ranking, but preliminary city figures indicate that the caseload has plummeted an additional 20 percent, Beilenson said.

Yesterday, CDC leaders praised the efforts of local officials to turn around outbreaks in Baltimore and other cities.

"We've seen remarkable reductions in syphilis rates over just a few years," said Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, a CDC official. He noted that last year the nation's syphilis cases fell to 5,979, for an all-time low rate of 2.2 cases per 100,000 people.

"We have a historic opportunity to continue this progress and eliminate syphilis in the U.S," Valdiserri said.

Syphilis was nearly eradicated in 1957, but the disease rebounded. In 1998, CDC officials decided they had a chance to wipe out syphilis because most cases were concentrated in a small number of counties and because the bacterial disease is easily diagnosed and treated. The agency provided funds for several areas, including Baltimore, Nashville, Tenn., and Indianapolis, that were struggling with outbreaks.

Most of Baltimore's cases have been in Northwest Baltimore and parts of East Baltimore, Beilenson said.

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