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Ohio Department of Health warns of 'alarming' rise of syphilis and measles cases in the state

An open box with vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine sit on top of more boxes of the vaccine.
Seth Wenig
Ohio health officials say if you get the measles vaccine, you are well protected against the virus.

The Ohio Department of Health is supplying free syphilis medication to health sites across the state as part of efforts to stem infections, health officials said Thursday at a press conference, as they warned about dangerous diseases on the rise in Ohio.

There is concern about the potential spread of measles, a viral infection that can be very dangerous for small children, the director of ODH, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, said.

Speaking at the briefing Thursday, Vanderhoff said there are concerns a measles outbreak in Europe will reach unvaccinated people in Ohio. There have been three cases of measles identified in the state this season, ODH officials said.

“We’ve had a few examples in the past year or two of historic illnesses making their way back into Ohio and causing unvaccinated Ohioans to become in some cases very severely ill," he said.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that causes fever, a red rash, cough and watery eyes, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Vanderhoff said most cases of measles in Ohio have occurred in the unvaccinated.

“The wonderful thing about our vaccines for measles is they are very, very highly effective and they are very effective at keeping you from even getting sick,” he said. “So, for the most part, those of us who are fully vaccinated really are deeply protected against measles and measles illness.”

The sexually-transmitted disease syphilis has been rising for the past four or five years at an alarming rate, Vanderhoff said. Infections in Cuyahoga County are outpacing the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said a number of factors may be behind the rise, including that syphilis is linked to drug use in the U.S., there are challenges in some parts of the state for timely testing and treatment and the fact that syphilis is frequently misdiagnosed in its early stages because the symptoms mimic other conditions.

“We are working extensively with medical providers … to screen for syphilis in pregnant women, not just at one of the first visits in pregnancy, which has been a long-standing practice, but again later in pregnancy, between 28 and 32 weeks,” said Vanderhoff. “We know that syphilis infection may be silent, even though it’s there.”

He said catching the infection in that window can give providers enough time to catch and treat pregnant patients before they give birth.

Vanderhoff said penicillin shots are an effective treatment for syphilis and in preventing congenital syphilis. He said ODH is now offering the medication for free for those who are underinsured or uninsured at over 100 sites across the state.

Meanwhile, Northeast Ohio public health officials are urging emergency medicine physicians to test all pregnant women who come to the ER for syphilis, in case their infection is not caught in prenatal care.

Corrected: February 23, 2024 at 9:31 AM EST
A previous version of this story contained a quote that misstated the number of measles cases in the state last year, 810, and this year, 105. Those were the state’s pertussis cases. There have been three measles cases reported so far this year, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.