BISMARCK, N.D. — BISMARCK, N.D. — Sexually-transmitted diseases, especially syphilis and gonorrhea, are on the rise in North Dakota.
The North Dakota Health Department identified 26 cases of syphilis in 2013 and the department has 33 preliminary reports already this year. In 2012, there were only 14.
The number of gonorrhea cases has increased by 225 percent since 2009.
A syphilis outbreak has been identified in North Dakota and South Dakota, with 82 cases between the two states since January 2013.
Many of those were identified this past April as the state health departments increased testing.
In North Dakota, the increase in cases started in Sioux County in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles both states.
The department is now seeing an increase in syphilis cases across the state, said Lindsey VanderBusch, the HIV/STD/TB/hepatitis program director.
“The highlight of having a lot of cases is that we’re identifying them,” she said.
Syphilis is spread through sexual contact and in its primary and secondary phases — the most infectious — it generally causes lesions and a rash. Later-stage syphilis can result in neurological damage and even death if not treated. In women, it can lead to childbirth complications.
“Syphilis is a priority here for us,” VanderBusch said.
Nationally, men who have sex with men are at a greater risk of contracting syphilis, although VanderBusch said North Dakota is seeing a high amount of cases from heterosexual contact as well.
Once a syphilis case has been identified, the department interviews the person and tries to figure out when he or she may have contracted it.
Then the department contacts sexual partners that person had around that time and since to have them get tested.
Those who do the interviews are well-trained and know how to make people feel comfortable despite the potentially awkward subject, VanderBusch said. All their information is kept confidential.
One of the main reasons the department keeps track of STD outbreaks is to target its prevention efforts. Good sexual health is important, VanderBusch said, and education is key.
VanderBusch recommended that all sexually-active people — especially LGBT men and those who have or have had other STDs — get tested for syphilis. The test is a simple blood test and the disease is treatable with penicillin.
VanderBusch said people should get tested for STDs regularly, anyway, to know their own health and to prevent transmitting diseases to future partners.
Using “barrier protection,” like condoms, greatly reduces the risk of spreading STDs like syphilis, as does limiting one’s number of sexual partners, she said.
People can get tested at local public health units and family planning clinics, like Bismarck-Burleigh Health, Custer Health and Custer Family Planning. Those facilities also offer free condoms provided by the state health department.
STDs are preventable, VanderBusch said, and most are treatable. Practicing safer sex will benefit everyone, she said.