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Cluster of unusual syphilis cases identified in Southwest Michigan

close-up of  microscope view of corkscrew-shaped orange bacteria
Skip Van Orden/AP
A tissue sample of Treponema pallidum spirochetes, the bacterium responsible for causing syphilis. Syphilis rates have been on the rise in Michigan and across the U.S.

Five women with a common sex partner reported vision and other eye issues, a rare side effect of syphilis.

A new report suggests that an outbreak of syphilis in Southwest Michigan may have been caused by an unidentified strain of the infecting bacteria.

In 2022, five women in different counties sought medical attention for eye issues and were found to have the sexually transmitted infection. All of the women reported vision impairment such as blurry or double vision. Normally, only about one percent of syphilis cases include issues with vision. Contact tracing revealed that the women had all had sex with the same partner.

“Right now, it's a hypothesis, given all the other information that we have, that maybe there was something unique about this strain of syphilis, that led to at least five people having eye syphilis,” said Dr. William Nettleton, medical director for Kalamazoo and Calhoun Counties. He co-authored the report, which was recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The women were identified between March and July of last year. All of them were successfully treated.

“One of the reasons public health is so important is to identify disease and then to interrupt disease transmission,”  said Nettleton.  

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says the number of syphilis cases in the state has doubled in the last decade. More common syphilis symptoms include sores and rashes. The disease is diagnosed through a blood test and treated using antibiotics.