State Health Department officials say group sex parties may have led to an outbreak of 10 cases of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, among teenagers in central Oklahoma. While syphilis is not rare and can be cured, officials are concerned because it’s not often seen in youths and can lead to serious health problems if untreated. They also are worried the outbreak could spread to other parts of the state. Health officials said the outbreak may be linked to teens attending parties where unprotected group sexual activity is encouraged. Ten cases of teens with syphilis were reported to the department in the past four weeks. "We are still looking to see if they are related and how they are related,” said Jan Fox, chief of sexual transmitted disease services for the state Health Department. Fox said that infected teens include boys and girls from several counties in central Oklahoma and that they resulted from heterosexual sex. She said group sex parties were reported by some of the teens. "We have learned this information from some of the confirmed cases,” she said. "We’ve also gotten information from talking with nurses at county health departments and others that interact with youth in the counties. They are all saying this is something happening among teens.” Of 249 cases of syphilis reported in Oklahoma last year, 15 were reported in teens younger than 18. So 10 teen cases in a month’s time is disturbing, Fox said. "For parents, this is very alarming,” Fox said. "It’s important to know where your kids are and what they are doing.” State epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley said syphilis can be cured with antibiotics if caught early. But untreated, it can damage major organs and cause serious birth defects. Darrin Akins, a microbiology and immunology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the large number of cases in one month indicate that they are related and may even have started with one infected person. "Ten cases in one area? That’s got to be something like group sex or trading drugs for sex,” he said. Akins said because the initial lesions are painless, youths may ignore or not notice the signs and continue spreading it. People also can be reinfected after treatment. Other symptoms are rashes that appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of hands and bottoms of the feet, swollen lymph glands, sore throat and fatigue.
New cases prompt call for educationGreg Heartsill, a disease intervention specialist with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, said he hasn’t heard of teen group sex parties but has seen more teens seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. One teen couple recently learned they had both syphilis and HIV. Other teens diagnosed with diseases like gonorrhea or chlamydia never return for treatment. Heartsill said teens may not realize the dangers of unprotected sex. "They don’t always understand the whole repercussions of having fun,” Heartsill said. Anita Fream, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, said the outbreak shows the need for comprehensive sex education in schools. "Teenagers need to know how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy,” she said. "They need the right information to make responsible decisions.”
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