Tohono O'odham dealing with severe syphilis outbreak

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - An outbreak of syphilis has health officials and leaders of the Tohono O'odham Nation southwest of Tucson concerned after 46 cases of the sexually transmitted disease were documented.

''A huge majority of them are young people, and that's a huge concern that we have,'' said Christina Andrews, executive director of Health and Human Services for the tribe.

Andrews noted the number of cases could grow because not all of the syphilis patients' partners have been identified.

Tribal health officials, with assistance from local, state and federal public health workers, have mounted an all-out effort to keep the disease from spreading further by using community education and outreach.

Those at high risk of contracting the disease are being encouraged to get screened.

It is the first time that such an outbreak has occurred on the reservation, said Robert Price, a Tucson-area spokesman for IHS, a federal program that provides health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives. ''This is significant for us, given the size of our population,'' he said.

''We're coordinating with Indian Health Service so people off the reservation also are aware,'' said Alfonso Urquidi, STD program manager for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Certain groups are at high risk for syphilis, he said, including teens who are extremely sexually active, gay and bisexual men who have unprotected sex, and people with multiple partners.

State records show in 2006 in Pima County, there were 98 syphilis cases documented.

So far this year, there have been 61, including those on the Tohono O'odham Nation, medical officials said.

On tribal land, barriers exist including limited resources, rural settings and stigmatization of the disease and that can add complexity to the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis, said Dr. Michelle McDonald, Pima County's chief medical officer.