This year's economic downturn has led to the worst syphilis outbreak in decades, according to an MSNBC report. The problem has gotten so bad in Forsyth County, North Carolina, that health officials have actually turned toward bribing people with free Wal-Mart and McDonald's gift cards in exchange for getting tested for the disease - with alarming success.
It has long been recognized that the venereal disease's outbreaks tend to coincide with periods of economic unrest. But why? Experts speculate that as times get tough, people are more likely to turn toward risky behavior and sexual promiscuity as a way to cope.
Though of course, people are also more likely to look for bargain deals and cheap food. That connection gave health workers an unconventional idea: Why not give out free $10 Wal-Mart gift cards to anyone who will get tested for syphilis and HIV?
Since the program has been initiated, the Forsyth County Department of Public Health has estimated that about half of the 603 people tested during the campaign were motivated by the Wal-Mart cards. In another campaign run by an STD awareness program called Get Real, Get Tested, also in North Carolina, gift cards for McDonald's were successfully used.
Director of the communicable diseases branch of the North Carolina Department of Public Health, Evelyn Foust, recalled the success of the McDonald's cards in motivating people to get tested: "I was in Rocky Mount (N.C.) where we screened 500 people in one weekend, when a woman came up to me and said, you know, with their dollar menu, I can get five meals out of this."
The program does come with a cost, however. The gift cards and the campaign were funded using federal dollars. And it's worth asking: aren't health officials sending the wrong message by peddling fast food? Moreover, is it appropriate to indirectly funnel federal funds-- which are intended to solve a public health crisis-- into the hands of specific companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald's?
One thing is for sure: syphilis is serious business. In Forsyth County alone, cases of infection have already tripled this year over last year's total. In the U.S. as a whole, 11,094 cases of primary and secondary syphilis were reported in 2007 (the last time such comprehensive totals were taken). That's nearly double the number of cases from 2000.
The numbers are particularly discouraging because syphilis can be easily treated with early diagnosis, and there is even hope that it could be eradicated. But if the disease goes undiagnosed early, it can actually lay dormant in the body for years while it is unknowingly transmitted to others. Furthermore, the disease can re-emerge years after it was originally caught and can cause brain damage and death. Syphilis also facilitates the transmission of HIV, and newborns who become infected in utero die up to 40 percent of the time.
"It's sad that it is still a serious public health problem because we should not even have it any more," said Foust. That's part of why campaigns like Get Real, Get Tested are needed.