ARS TECHNICA – Health officials in Michigan have identified an alarming cluster of syphilis infections in women’s eyes.
The first-of-its-kind cluster—in five women all linked to one infected man—raises the possibility that a new strain of syphilis bacteria has adapted to more easily cause systemic syphilis, particularly disease that affects the eyes and central nervous system.
A report of the cluster and what it might mean is published today by Michigan health officials in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Eye syphilis, aka ocular syphilis, is not new. Syphilis bacteria, Treponema pallidum (formerly Spirochaeta pallida) are known to be able to spread to the eye, as well as the inner ear, and central nervous system when the sexually transmitted infection is left untreated.
This spread can lead to blindness, deafness, and life-threatening neurosyphilis if it remains untreated.
But ocular syphilis is rare. It’s only found in about 1 percent of syphilis cases, similar to inner ear and neurosyphilis, according to a large analysis published last year.
When ocular syphilis does develop, it’s most often seen in people who have late-stage syphilis, people who are 65 years of age or older, people who report injection drug use, and those who are HIV-positive.
But, in this cluster, the five women all had early-stage infections. They were all between 40 and 60 years old, and none reported injection drug use.
The string of cases began to unravel in March 2022, when the first woman, Patient A, was referred to the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department (KCHCSD) by an ophthalmologist.
The woman reported blurry vision, fear of blindness, and genital lesions.
Testing indicated syphilis, and she reported only one sex partner in the past 12 months—a man she met online …