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Chelsea's Syphilis Infection Rate Is 6 Times Citywide Average, City Finds

 Chelsea has the highest syphilis infection rates in the city.
Chelsea has the highest syphilis infection rates in the city.
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NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

CHELSEA — Syphilis rates in Chelsea have climbed to more than six times the city's average infection rate amid a citywide uptick that has continued to grow for more than a decade, the city's health department warned.

The health department recorded 138 new reported cases in Chelsea in 2013 — an infection rate of 93.3 cases per 100,000 people, far higher than the city's average 14 cases per 100,000.

In addition, Chelsea's infection rate was higher than any city in the nation — including San Francisco, which had a rate of 60 cases per 100,000 people in 2013, according to CDC statistics. Rates for neighborhoods within cities across the nation were not immediately available.

The increase came amid a rise in citywide infection rates, which rose more than 8 percent last year, according to the Department of Health's annual report. There were 628 cases of syphilis infections reported in NYC in the first half of 2014, as compared to 585 in the same period the year before. The DOH has not released the full 2014 numbers.

“In NYC, the vast majority of syphilis cases are among men, specifically men who have sex with men,”  the DOH said in a statement, blaming a widespread failure to use condoms. “The increasing syphilis incidence is driven by unprotected sex.”

Anthony Hayes of AIDS service organization GMHC said that because syphilis is difficult to detect early on, the disease spreads rapidly.

"In those areas you have a sexual network that are likely unaware that they have syphilis. When you have sexual networks that are unaware that they have something, it is easy for it to multiply more quickly," he explained.

"More people are having unprotected sex ... the other thing is it’s really easy to get, you don’t have to just engage in intercourse. You can get it through oral sex,” he added, saying GMHC offers free testing at their West 29th Street clinic.

Dr. Vera Antonios, who works at AIDS nonprofit Harlem United's clinic on East 126th Street and said she had been seeing “a lot of syphilis,” especially among gay men.

“If people are looking for symptoms they may not see any,” Antonios said, adding that the clinic often makes the first diagnosis in people who came in to be treated for other illnesses.

Syphilis can be cured with a single shot of penicillin if caught but can cause serious damage to the body and even death if left untreated, according to the CDC.

The illness has three stages, and after time may cause a rash or sores, which are often painless and not itchy.

“We’ve seen quite a few with the skin rash in the arms and the genital area,” Antonios said. “It may look very non-specific.”

In later stages, hair loss and confusion can set in, and the disease can move to the brain, she said.

Because infection can be invisible, frequent testing for syphilis and all STDs is recommended for anyone who might be at risk, "ideally several times a year," according to Hayes.

The report comes as the Department of Health's Chelsea STD clinic gets ready to close for two to three years for renovations on March 31. The city will move its services to its Riverside clinic at 160 West 100th St, the health department said.

The city has distributed millions of condoms to try and stem the spread of syphilis, has run education programs on the disease for health workers and offers sliding-scale testing and treatment, officials said.