Valley AIDS Council (VAC) is reporting that syphilis is on the rise among youth in the Rio Grande Valley.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that is spread by direct contact with an infected sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex, as described by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention. While VAC has not released specific numbers on the rise of syphilis in the Valley, the agency shared that the trend is something they have taken notice of at their clinics, which prompted them to reach out to the public to raise awareness.
In the past weeks, VAC has been working on contacting an upwards of 40 people who may have been exposed to this sexually transmitted infection (STI). While they may have been exposed, it is important to note that they may not have necessarily contracted syphilis.
There is some speculation from VAC as to the recent spike in positive syphilis tests. One possible reason that VAC has considered, and that has been previously written about by BBC and USA Today, is the increased usage of dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder.
“Dating apps have made it easier to hook up, and people need to protect themselves,” Oscar Raul Lopez, director of education at VAC, said. “But I want to make sure we don’t slut shame anybody. It is just alarming how more rampant we are seeing more and more STIs.”
Still another possibility proposed by Lopez is the lack of knowledge surrounding PrEP, what the medicine protects against, and the requirements that come with it. PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a daily medicine that can help reduce a person’s chance of contracting HIV, as well as stopping HIV from taking hold and spreading. However, it does not protect against syphilis or other STIs.
One critical component that causes this lack of knowledge is when doctors prescribe PrEP, they themselves do not know the requirements that are called for, according to Lopez. Patients themselves may not know that they are required to test every three months for STIs and for liver functions. What VAC wants people to know is that PrEP is not an all-in-one solution and that only condoms can protect against syphilis.
Kathryn Hearn, community services director for Access Esperanza Clinics in McAllen, said they have seen a small rise over the years for syphilis. Hearn also had some ideas about the resurgence.
“Decades ago, governmental agencies were focused intensely on eradicating syphilis, and when the disease rates dropped so low, those programs were ended or greatly reduced,” Hearn shared with Neta. “That and probably hook-up apps have allowed syphilis to resurge.”
Another factor that plays a role in the spread of STIs is the general lack of access to medical care in South Texas. Lopez also acknowledged that the absence of a reliable public transportation system in the Valley has a major effect on the health of people in the community. Along with transportation, having no health insurance and funds to visit a clinic also adds to the inaccessibility of obtaining adequate health care.
There are options available for those who may need support, Lopez said.
“If you don’t have insurance, you can rely on wonderful clinics like the Esperanza Clinics, Planned Parenthood, and Valley AIDS Council,” Lopez said. “That’s where it gets a little complicated because some folks, especially the younger ones, don’t have transportation. But we don’t want that to be a deterrent for not getting tested and not coming in. So we can’t work with everybody but we can work with some folks to provide transportation. If needed we can also go test them in one of our vans at a facility near them.”
In addition to HIV services, VAC has testing available for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. They can now test syphilis with a prick on the finger using a needle and with a urine test or cotton swab for gonorrhea and chlamydia. All these tests are free at VAC.
“If you ever test positive for an STI, you don’t have to tell the world about it, but admitting that, ‘Hey it happened to me, it can happen to anybody,’ is a good thing because it normalizes the situation,” Lopez said.
While VAC continues to raise awareness of syphilis being on the rise in the Valley, they want to make sure that the community knows that they are not trying to scare anybody with this news, or shame anybody about STIs and their sex life. They just want to make sure people prioritize their health and see what affordable options are available to them.