Santa Barbara County has seen cases of syphilis quadruple in recent years, and public health officials are trying to raise awareness about the disease.
Sexually transmitted diseases of all kinds are on the rise in the county, but syphilis saw the most dramatic increase from 2011 to 2013, rising from five cases to 22, and the rates for this year are on track to be just as high if not higher, said Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
Fitzgibbons is an infectious disease physician and deputy heath officer with the county, as well as holding the title of STD controller, which means she works to track data on STDs and coordinate the public health effort.
Syphilis rates on are the rise nationally as well as locally, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published data detailing a doubling of cases nationally between 2005 and 2012.
Though the overall number of local cases is still small, "this has everyone's attention, and is an increasing health problem," Fitzgibbons said.
As for why the increase is happening, "it's probably many things," she said, but one theory is that "as HIV is increasingly regarded as a chronic disease as opposed to a terminal illness, people are using condoms less than 20 years ago. As fear of HIV decreases, so does condom use."
Another factor may be the proliferation of social media, which allows patients who are at higher risk to have increased access to multiple sexual partners, she said.
Fitzgibbon said the average patient seeking treatment for syphilis, locally and nationally, are mainly men who have sex with men and not specific to one age group or demographic.
"These are all treatable conditions," Fitzgibbons said, "and the Public Health Department and our community partners are working to help patients."