Stanislaus County is a battling an increase in syphilis among women and babies born with the sexually transmitted disease.
Last year, the county Health Services Agency documented more than 100 cases of syphilis in women of child-bearing age.
Syphilis is potentially life-threatening, and infected pregnant women can transmit the disease to their unborn infants, which can result in miscarriage or a baby born with malformations and neurological problems.
Consistent with a statewide and national trend, the county has seen a five-year increase in infections in both women and men. That occurred after less than 20 cases were reported in child-bearing-age women in 2013.
County officials are especially concerned about the babies born with syphilis last year.
“We had 15 last year and we really should have zero,” said Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, county public health officer. “When we get syphilis in women, we see it in babies and that is the problem.”
Efforts to control the disease were detailed in an annual report on public health issues Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors.
The prevalence of the sexually transmitted disease is nowhere near the level in the 1980s, but has risen sharply from historic lows in California. The incidence of early latent, primary and secondary syphilis was about 25 cases per 100,000 men and women in Stanislaus County last year. It was less than 3 per 100,000 in 2012.
According to national figures, a 36 percent increase in syphilis among women occurred from 2015 to 2016, accompanied by a 28 percent increase in congenital syphilis.
Health experts attribute the new scourge of STDs, including syphilis and gonorrhea, to the popularity of online dating sites, less public spending for STD clinics and better methods for detecting infections. Another factor is higher STD rates among young people and gay, bisexual men who have unprotected sex.
Vaishampayan said county health services will work to close gaps in diagnosing and treating syphilis and reach out to health providers to ensure testing of pregnant women. Adequate treatment prevents an expectant mother from transmitting the disease to her unborn infant.
The county will also boost public education and is working with county jails to test female inmates and begin treatment of infected inmates during incarceration. After their release, the former inmates follow up with county public health to make sure treatment is completed.
Local residents can avoid catching an STD by practicing safe sex, the health officer said. The higher risk behavior is dating a new partner in the last 12 months and not using a condom.
People with early signs of syphilis — a sore emerging three weeks after exposure — are advised to seek treatment.
In another issue highlighted in Tuesday's report, county public health is monitoring more children for lead in their blood. Lead poisoning in children long has been recognized for causing effects on the nervous system and brain, as well as low blood count and damage to organs.
The classic symptoms in children are developmental delays and learning difficulties, weight loss, sluggish behavior and fatigue.
The state has made its guidelines more consistent with federal standards, resulting in a lower threshold for monitoring children for lead blood levels. In Stanislaus County, the number of kids monitored for high lead blood levels increased from five to 33 in the last fiscal year. Public health is now monitoring 221 children for abnormal lead blood levels, compared with 15 the previous year, because of the state's lower threshold.
County public health and environmental resources staff visit homes to look for sources of lead contamination, such as old paint, ointments and lead-tainted pots or candies from other countries.
The case management service may include children in public programs that have testing requirements, children potentially exposed to lead by living in older homes and newly arrived refugees who are 6 months to 16 years old.
"“We see young refugees and asylees who are coming from countries where they do have exposure to lead,” Vaishampayan said.
Tuesday's report also noted a two-year spike in valley fever, with 105 cases in 2016 and 129 last year, compared to 63 in 2015.
Board Chairman Jim DeMartini asked for more context on the county's high infant mortality rate of 47.7 per 100,000 births, which was based on data from 2012-14. Public health staff said the county ranks 49th among the 58 counties in California in infant mortality.