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Fresno County sees rise in syphilis

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An ancient disease is re-emerging in the Central Valley, with devastating results to babies. (KFSN)

An ancient disease is re-emerging in the Central Valley, with devastating results to babies.

Local hospitals and clinics are seeing a surge in syphilis including Chris Downer, an OBGYN at Community Regional Medical Centers.

"It's a major public health concern for us the number of patients that we see with syphilis," Downer said. "Especially in pregnancy has gone up substantially, it's something we need to address.

Statistics from the Fresno County Health Department show a dramatic rise. In 2010 there were just 10 reported cases. By 2016, there were 160 diagnosed.

The most serious version is congenital syphilis, which is when an unborn child contracts the disease from its mother. Those cases went from just two in 2010 to 40 last year. Because of the rise the, FCHD has ordered all hospitals to test expectant mothers at least three times during their pregnancies.

"First focusing on pregnant women, then women of childbearing age, those are the ones we want to get investigated first," David Luchini with the health department said. "And from there we will investigate other cases."

In adults, the initial symptoms of syphilis can be mild starting with a painless sore at a point of sexual contact, followed later by a body rash and flu like symptoms. They can pass, but if not treated the disease never leaves, and complications years later can include brain damage, paralysis, blindness and death.
But for the unborn,

"For untreated syphilis one of the effects can happen before delivery they can have a high rate of miscarriage or intra uterine fetal demise," Downer said. "And then after delivery depending on how long they've had the disease, it can affect baby in multiple ways."

If the baby survives it could be premature, suffer internal organ damage, facial deformities, blindness deafness and nervous system damage. Syphilis is an old disease that almost disappeared, now its back, but overshadowed other less common ailments like Zika.

"You are much more likely to have syphilis than ever come in contact with Zika virus and also the effects of syphilis can be much worse," Downer said.

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