Recently, five women in Michigan contracted syphilis in their eyes following sexual encounters with the same man, prompting concerns among U.S. scientists that a new strain of the syphilis bacterium might be responsible for this unusual form of infection.
Syphilis, caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, rarely infects the eyes, typically manifesting after prolonged untreated infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is alarmed by the possibility of a mutated strain, as reported in their published findings. The presence of a common heterosexual partner in an ocular syphilis cluster, a previously undocumented occurrence, suggests an unidentified strain of T. pallidum linked to an increased risk of systemic syphilis manifestations.
The infected women, aged 40 to 60, displayed symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, eye floaters, and photophobia (eye discomfort in bright light). Upon tracing their shared partner, a man with early latent syphilis was identified – a stage where the disease is present without symptoms. Although he didn’t have ocular syphilis, he received penicillin treatment.
The puzzling aspect for scientists lies in the rarity of eye syphilis, typically affecting a small percentage of cases, often in individuals over 65, with late-stage syphilis, a history of intravenous drug use, or HIV-positive status. Strikingly, none of the women fit these categories, indicating a potential new phenomenon. This cluster is the first reported instance linked to heterosexual transmission.
Despite tests on the central figure of the cluster failing to identify a new strain of T. pallidum, the absence of ulcers or lesions crucial for genetic testing complicated the analysis. The CDC is now emphasizing the possibility of a new bacterial strain facilitating the spread of the disease to the eyes and other body parts, raising awareness about this potential public health concern.