The Lost Children of Rockdale County

n 1996, in a small suburb of Atlanta, a school nurse reported an increasing number of teenagers who were infected with syphilis. This was a strange occurrence because, as you may recall, experts had pre­dicted that syphilis was on its way to virtual elimination in the United States. The number of teenagers testing positive for syphilis continued to grow, and slowly public health workers realized that the infected teens were all interacting sexually together. First six white females (four of whom were under the age of 16), two white males (both 17 years old), and two African-American males (ages 19 and 16) were diagnosed with syphilis (Rothenberg et al., 1998). By piecing together the social networks of these adolescents, researchers realized that the sexual interactions had begun at least 1 year before the first diagnosis of syphilis (when STIs occur, researchers use social network tools to help them understand recent outbreaks). Upon investigation, re­searchers found that underground experimental sex and drug/alcohol use in a group of teenagers in Rockdale

County was wildly spreading syphilis among the partici­pants (Loftus, 2001).

The center of the outbreak was a group of young white girls who often met with a group of older African-American and white boys at one of the teens’ homes. The parents were usually working or out of the home. During the sexual inter­actions the girls would have oral, anal, and vaginal intercourse with many of the boys, often in front of the other teens. Then they would all swap partners and engage in other sexual be­haviors. Oftentimes the girls would experience a "sandwich," which involved giving a boy oral sex while being penetrated anally and vaginally by two other boys.

What is interesting about this case is that even after some of the girls were diagnosed with STIs, many of their parents refused to believe that they were sexually active (Loftus, 2001). They convinced themselves that they must have become infected from some other way. Many experts believe that the parents’ and teens’ "disconnect" may not be that rare today, especially when talking about sex.

ically examined. Today the most common tests used for the detection of syphilis are blood tests. These tests check for the presence of antibodies, which develop once a per­son is infected with the bacteria. During late syphilis, blood tests may be negative or weakly positive even if the infection exists (Lowhagen, 1990). If a person thinks that he or she may have been exposed to syphilis but tests negative, he or she should engage only in safer-sex activity and consult with his or her healthcare provider immediately.

Treatment Although there have been several different treatments for syphilis over the years, penicillin is the treatment of choice today (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002a). The dosage and length of treatment depend on the stage of illness and severity of symptoms. Antibiotics may cause a temporary increase in fever or symp­toms, which subsides in a few hours. Follow-up examinations may be done in 6 to 12 months if necessary. Many physicians today recommend HIV tests and counseling for patients who have syphilis.