Kansas City sees big increase in syphilis cases in middle-aged adults

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- You may think that syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that's no longer a problem. Think again. Kansas City is seeing big increases in cases including in middle-aged adults.

When Dr. Blair Thedinger was in medical school, he was told syphilis was rare. Then he started working at Kansas City CARE Clinic.

"I see syphilis all the time. All the time," Dr. Thedinger said.

So does the Kansas City Health Department. It sees cases in teens to seniors. What may be most surprising is the number of cases in middle-aged Kansas Citians. There have been 46 so far this year in people ages 40 to 59. Last year, there were 79 cases compared to just 20 in 2010. About half are in men who have sex with other men.

What are possible reasons for the increase in middle-aged people?

"It could be someone coming out of a long-term relationship and going out and dating a lot of people," said Bill Snook, spokesperson for the health department.

Dr. Thedinger also wonders about a possible "Viagra effect."

"More people who are previously unable to have sex because of erectile dysfunction are older adults. They're receiving medication to treat erectile dysfunction so they can have sex," he said.

The doctor says middle-aged people also may not be as educated about the use of condoms although he cautions that syphilis can also be spread through other practices in which people typically don't use that protection.

The initial symptom of syphilis is usually a sore. If not treated, the disease can progress to a secondary stage with a rash on one or more parts of the body. In the late stage, syphilis can cause organ damage and kill.

"Be safe. Be smart. Get tested. Get treated," said Snook.

The health department recommends that anyone who's sexually active talk with a health care provider about testing.

"We have cases that come into our clinic that are in those long-term relationships and then they find out their partner has been cheating. So you have to be an advocate for yourself," said Snook.