Syphilis cases have increased in Stark County, according to a North Dakota Department of Health press release. The Health Department reported growing clusters of people with the the sexually transmitted disease in Cass County, as well.

"There are increases in syphilis nationwide. It's not unique to just North Dakota," Shari Renton, the Health Department's STD program coordinator, told The Dickinson Press. "In the last couple of years there's been a large increase in congenital syphilis as well."

One cause for the increase in infections is illegal drug use, primarily meth, Renton said, which can promote risky sexual behavior.

Pregnant women, in particular, are being affected by the disease.

There have been 72 confirmed reports in North Dakota through 2019. Of those, 25 are women and seven have been pregnant.

"It's pretty much on trend to be similar to what we saw in 2018, but the number of cases of women, keeps increasing each year," Renton said.

There have been two cases of pregnant women with the disease in Stark County. The disease can be transmitted from the pregnant woman to the unborn child and, if left untreated, the STD can lead to blindness, brain damage, heart problems, and even death, the Health Department reported.

Additional problems can exist for pregnant women.

"It can cause a woman to miscarry the baby, and if the baby is born, it can have a stillbirth or there are a lot of different deformities that can occur with the baby, and the baby can even die later on as well," Renton said.

Connect Medical Clinic in Dickinson has had an increase in syphilis testing as risk factors for syphilis were adjusted by the state Health Department in July, Executive Director Katie Vidmar told The Dickinson Press.

"It used to be that we only did a blood draw to test for syphilis if you were a man having sex with men, or someone was carrying the HIV virus and had a sexual partner," Vidmar said. "It's a fairly small population that it was recommended we test."

Factors were expanded to include multiple or new sexual partners, if a partner has concurrent partners, and having sex with anonymous partners.

"That change really opens it up, so most of the people we're seeing at Connect are presenting them with a risk factor that qualifies them for a syphilis test," Vidmar said.

Connect has not had any tests return positive as of Tuesday.

The medical clinic at 683 State Ave. provides counseling, testing and referral only. Samples are processed by the state laboratory, and results faxed via secure line.

"If we were to have a positive, we would refer for treatment," Vidmar said. "We wouldn't want to undertreat syphilis. It's tricky and there's multiple stages. You want to make sure that you're treating at the appropriate level for the stage the person is at."

The Health Department has been proactive in creating awareness of the disease and of the testing and treatment options available.

"Last year we recommended pregnant women be tested three times throughout pregnancy," Renton said. "Normally it is only one time, at their first prenatal visit, but we have started to recommend that they be tested at their first prenatal visit, again at 28 to 32 weeks, and again at delivery."

Local hospitals and clinics have benefited from the guidance, as well.

"They were in Dickinson 10 days ago meeting with medical professionals and primary care providers," Vidmar said, "just helping them jog their memories on risk factors and what to be looking for, especially with pregnant women."

There are several ways to prevent infection.

"It is a sexually transmitted disease, so either abstinence or using condoms, and knowing your partner's status, as well, making sure to both go in and get tested if you haven't been," Renton said.

She added, "We're definitely recommending that anyone who is sexually active go and get tested."

For more information, contact the North Dakota Department of Health STD program at 328-2378 or visit www.ndhealth.gov.