Sex and the City of New Orleans- #2

Dr. Lisa Moreno-Walton, MD, MS, MSCR

Emergency Medicine Physician at University Medical Center

Director of Research, Diversity, and Latino Health Scholars Program

Like everything else in the Universe, sex has a good side and a bad side.  The bad side:  Sex can make you sick.  There are multiple diseases that can result from sexual contact, including syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, HIV, hepatitis, HPV, and some little known infections such as LGV, trichomonas and condyloma.  In the US, syphilis rates have been rising since 2000.  Untreated, syphilis can lead to severe damage to your heart and brain.  A pregnant woman infected with syphilis can transmit it to her unborn baby, causing miscarriage and stillbirth.  Babies who survive are born with severe birth defects and a strange appearance, including deformities of the face and teeth.   Louisiana ranks third in the nation in syphilis transmission to sex partners and first in transmission of syphilis to unborn babies.  14.5 of every 100,000 people in our state have syphilis, and 93.4 of every per 100,000 births is a baby born with syphilis. 

You’ve heard me say on WBOK and Q93 that lack of knowledge contributes to the high burden of sexually transmitted infections in NOLA, and that the rate is highest among Blacks and Latinos.  A few months ago, my staff and I conducted a study at UMC to discover just how much people know about how you get syphilis, how to prevent it, and how it’s treated.  Doctors, nurses and patients took a 19-question quiz about syphilis.  The results were bad.  On average, doctors scored only 80% on the quiz, nurses scored 58% and patients scored 49%.  The patients who scored the best were those who had learned about syphilis in school or from doctors and nurses.  So, since knowledge is power, let’s learn the facts!

You get syphilis by having sex with someone who has syphilis.  Mothers can pass it to their unborn babies.  A few days, weeks or months later, you will get a sore on the mouth, anus, vagina or penis.  The sore DOES NOT HURT.  It is sometimes hidden inside the vagina or the anus, so you won’t even notice it.  And a few days later, it just goes away, leaving people thinking it probably was nothing important.  Many months later, a rash will appear on the body, often on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.  Again, there is no pain, and again, IT GOES AWAY, so people often think they had an allergic reaction to something and it doesn’t mean much.  BUT ALL THIS TIME, SYPHILIS IS WORKING TO DESTROY YOUR BODY AND YOU ARE POTENTIALLY INFECTING EVERYONE YOU HAVE SEX WITH.  Up to 20 years later, you can have a heart attack, rupture of a major blood vessel leading to death, or develop memory problems, dementia or insanity.  This should never happen to anyone, since treatment of syphilis is easy.  You come to visit us, and we give you three shots of penicillin over three months.  If you do not get all three shots, you will NOT be cured.

So, see a doctor immediately if you find out you have had sex with someone who has syphilis.  See us if you have a sore on your mouth, penis, vagina or anus or any unexplained rash.  If we tell you that you do have syphilis, we will start treatment immediately, but please COME BACK for the second and third shots so that you are cured.  And stay tuned for my monthly column on all things relevant to your happy, healthy sex life!

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