The rates of syphilis in many countries have been steadily rising over the last few years. The CDC said, in the U.S, it doubled from 2.1 cases for every 100,000 people in 2000 to 2013’s 5.3 cases for every 100,000 people.
Worldwide reports have shown that there has been an increase in the number of ocular syphilis cases. Ocular syphilis is an inflammatory eye disease that causes redness, blurry vision, partial blindness or complete blindness if left untreated.
The University of Sao Paulo and Flinders University researchers looked at four Brazil medical centers for over two years and found that ocular syphilis cases had risen eight times in a 10-year period.
The team found that in 127 patients with ocular syphilis, 87 of them had the disease in both eyes. Many of them had suffered serious complications such as retinal detachment, which happens when the thin layer behind the eye is loose. Over half the patients lost their vision under levels that allowed them to drive.
Researchers said the Brazil findings are a reflection of the disease’s re-emergence.
Study co-author Joao Marcello Furtado from the University of Sao Paulo said ocular syphilis was rarely diagnosed during the 1990s and early 2000s, attributing to just two percent of all eye inflammation cases. Today, he said, reports show that nearly ocular syphilis is prevalent in the U.S., Europe and areas of Australia. Thus, Furtado said, the problem isn’t just limited to Brazil.
Syphilis is caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria that usually go unnoticed as most of its symptoms mimic other conditions. Such symptoms include skin rash, headache and sore throat. It’s the same problem for ocular syphilis, which is why many people didn’t see their doctor for several months until after the problem presented itself in later stages.
Another problem is that many doctors are not used to seeing symptoms of syphilis, and the disease is being overlooked or mistreated.
Study co-author Justine Smith from Flinders’ College of Medicine and Public Health said when ocular syphilis isn’t treated quickly, it can cause damage to the eye’s inner components and lead to permanent damage. Early treatment, however, can reverse the damage.
Despite their findings, researchers are urging doctors who have syphilis patients complaining of eye problems to an ophthalmologist.
Furtado said the syphilis stigma is less, but early detection is a necessity for anyone exposed and diagnosed with the disease.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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