Syphilis of the Eye Outbreak: A Reminder That Curable STDs Can Be Serious

Published: March 20, 2015

RH Reality Check
Martha Kempner
Original Article:

Syphilis is one of the oldest sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with an outbreak among French soldiers first recorded in 1495. Before the advent of penicillin, the disease was known to cause muscle weakness, dementia, blindness, and even death.

Today, of course, syphilis can be cured, but a cluster of cases on the West Coast in which syphilis has infected patients’ eyes and even led to blindness should serve to remind us that even curable STDs can cause serious complications.

Since December, San Francisco has seen seven cases of uveitis, a swelling of the middle layer of the eye, caused by syphilis. There have also been cases in Orange County, San Diego, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. In that same time, there have been six cases in Washington, four of them in King County, which is where Seattle is located.

At least two of the cases in Washington have led to blindness. Most of those infected on the West Coast have been men who have sex with men (MSM) and many, though not all, have been HIV-positive.

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