Meth addiction and sex trafficking are fueling Oklahoma's growing syphilis outbreak

The disease can cause severe symptoms if left untreated, but tracking a source is often difficult, and dangerous


Charlie May
September 2, 2017 12:30PM (UTC)

A fast-spreading outbreak of syphilis in Oklahoma has left health officials concerned that the sexually transmitted disease will continue to circulate and potentially endanger lives, according to a recent report by the New York Times.

The disease can eventually cause "blindness, paralysis and dementia" if untreated, and the recent outbreak is a byproduct of the heroin and methamphetamine epidemics, because users will often trade sex for the substances, the Times reported.

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In a video interview, shown above, Salon spoke with Portia King, a veteran Oklahoma state health investigator who has seen the epidemic quickly grow out out of control.

King attributes the syphilis outbreak to widespread drug use and drug addiction, and in particular, meth.

"Drugs like meth really ramp up someone's sexual appetite, and so they tend to have a lot of partners," King said. "They have a lot of partners within their drug network, and so it's a lot of people sharing the same partner."

In an earlier interview with the Times, King said her department is dealing with 200 open cases of sex partners they're looking for. "The spread is migrating out of the city," she told the Times.

On the ground, investigators use Facebook to track potential partners who could potentially be infected.

Earlier this year, investigators were bewildered after three reported cases of syphilis were discovered in a juvenile detention center between a boy and two girls, the youngest of whom was 14, after having never seen a positive case since the seven years of testing for it.

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The Times elaborated:

Then, in February, a prison inmate tested positive. In interviews, he listed 24 sex partners — some his own, others the so-called pass-around girls for gangs, usually in exchange for heroin or methamphetamine. Contact information from the Entertainment Manager, as he called himself, pointed the way to a syphilis spread that, by March, led health officials to declare an outbreak, one of the largest in the country.

Although syphilis still mostly afflicts gay and bisexual men who are African-American or Hispanic, in Oklahoma and nationwide, rates are rising among white women and their infants. Nearly five times as many babies across the country are born with syphilis as with H.I.V.

Clinics that help treat the disease have seen their funds cut, and in 2012, "half of state programs that address sexually transmitted infections experienced reductions; funding has largely stayed flat since then."

However, cuts will continue to steepen as President Donald Trump's administration proposed to slash funding by 17 percent, the Times reported. Tracking the source, or sources, of an outbreak is often difficult, and the conditions are often dangerous for health officials to do so.

The Times followed Erinn Williams, the lead investigator for the outbreak in Oklahoma City, as she drove through a rough neighborhood to inform a woman that her test results for the disease had come back positive. Williams made efforts to ease the woman's embarrassment and nervousness, and promised her that she was only there for her health.

Syphilis has been around for quite some time, at least since the 1400s, but as time went on and "largely because of treatment and public education, syphilis was disappearing. A generation of physicians rarely learned to recognize it firsthand," the Times reported.

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Charlie May

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

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Epidemic Heroin Epidemic New York Times Oklahoma Oklahoma City Original Video Salon Now Syphilis




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