STD Awareness in Georgia Addresses Syphilis and HIV Infections

April 20, 2015

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) joins the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other partners to recognize National Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Awareness Month.

This year, NCSD is addressing the continued increase of syphilis and HIV cases in the U.S.

“NCSD is very proud to be working with our members across the county, like Michelle Allen in Georgia, to honor National STD Awareness Month,” stated Stephanie Arnold Pang, director of Policy and Communications for NCSD. “The best way to address these rising STD rates is to recommit to our best prevention tools: tried and true safe sex practices such as using condoms and increased STD testing and treatment.”

The focus on eradicating syphilis is longstanding in Georgia. The 2013 Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance report by the Division of STD Prevention at CDC ranked Georgia No. 1 for primary and secondary syphilis and in the top 10 for chlamydia, gonorrhea and congenital syphilis.  

“We average about 60,000 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis each year in Georgia,” said Michelle Allen, STD director at DPH, Health Protection Section. “The majority of these cases are for chlamydia, making it the most pervasive STD both in Georgia and nationally.”

Although Allen works to regularly engage partners for all STDs, she places a specific focus on the relationship between syphilis and HIV infection rates.

“What makes the fight against syphilis so important is that syphilis and HIV infections are often co-occurring,” said Allen. “We are seeing a co-infection rate of about 50 percent between these two STDs in the U.S. and Georgia is following those national rates.”

In addition to promoting increased syphilis and HIV prevention methods throughout Georgia’s 18 public health districts and college campuses, Allen reiterates the importance of promoting sexual health beyond the most commonly discussed STDs.

“When you talk about notifiable diseases, syphilis is not the first thing that comes to mind,” said Allen. “HIV is very pronounced in the public; it has about 40 health awareness days annually and DPH uses the “HIV is an STD” tagline to support our HIV messaging. Beyond these efforts, we have to encourage comprehensive sexual health practices. Don’t just talk about knowing your HIV status, know your status as it relates to sexual health in general.”

In this year’s legislative session, the STD program scored a major victory in its mission to increase STD testing statewide. House Bill 436 passed that requires physicians and health care providers to offer HIV and syphilis testing of pregnant women in their third trimester of pregnancy.

It’s important to screen pregnant women for prenatal and congenital syphilis, a life-threatening infection seen in infants. A pregnant mother can spread the disease through the placenta to the unborn infant.

“Many pregnant women continue to remain sexually active throughout their pregnancy,” said Allen. “If the mother were infected with syphilis after her first trimester, she was not screened again. Physicians now have two opportunities –the first and third trimester – to screen and treat pregnant women before giving birth to protect them and their unborn child.”

Allen’s passion for sexual health has caught the attention of health advocates beyond Georgia. She will be recognized for her public health leadership by the Red Door Foundation as a recipient of the 2015 Flame Thrower and Unity Award during the 3rd annual Saving Ourselves Symposium on June 6 in Tennessee.                                                                                                                                         

To access information about STD screening and treatment, visit DPH’s STD Section online or call 404-463-3877.  You can also find STD information from CDC by calling 1-800-232-4636 or viewing www.cdc.gov/std.  

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