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LA health worker is fighting the spread of syphilis

Roberto Rocha, a supervising health investigator, will go as far as staking out a donut shop, talking with gang members or even banging on grandma’s door to track down those infected with syphilis.

The 42-year-old works for the Los Angeles County Public Health Department in the division of HIV and STD.

His job is to track down those that are infected with syphilis and HIV, a growing problem in that area, to stop the spread of the disease.

People infected with syphilis has increased in United States, and specifically Los Angeles, California, to an alarming level.

Syphilis cases in LA rose 20 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to Los Angeles County Public Health Department.

And though officials such as Rocha are using all their resources to stop the outbreak, it continues to rise in men, women and women who are pregnant.   

Rocha spoke with Daily Mail Online about the job of being a supervising health investigator and how he works daily get those infected tested and treated.

Roberto Rocha, 42, is a supervising health investigator for the Los Angeles County Public Health Department. One of his jobs is to track down people who test positive for syphilis or HIV to get them treated in hopes it will help stop the spread of those diseases

Roberto Rocha has worked for the Los Angeles County Public Health Department (LACPHD) since 2001. 

The main part of his job as a supervising health investigator is tracking down people who have tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease or HIV.

In LA, anybody that gets any type of testing in the are from a clinic, office or hospital will get reported back to the LACPHD.

In Rocha’s department, they are mainly focusing on people who tested positive for syphilis and HIV because those are the ones that are increasing at a rapid pace. 

‘Most of the time I am a disease chaser,’ Rocha said.  

What is syphilis and how can it be treated?  

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause serious health problems if left untreated. 

It can spread through direct contact of a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal or oral sex. 

These sores can be found on the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, mouth or lips of the infected. 

It can also spread from a pregnant mother to an unborn child. 

Laboratory tests are the only way you can find out if you have been infected with syphilis. 

Doctors can prescribe antibiotics to get rid of the disease but people can always get re-infected.  

Syphilis is divided into four stages: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary

Primary Stage

During the first stage, the infected might notice a sore or multiple sores. 

The sore will be located where the syphilis entered the body. 

They are usually round, firm and painless so they can go unnoticed for a long time. 

The sores can last three to six weeks and heal without treatment, but you still need to go get antibiotics even if they go away.

Secondary Stage

If sores go untreated, then the infection will move on to the secondary stage.

This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more parts of the body. 

The rash can show up right as the primary sore is healing or a few weeks after it is gone. 

It usually doesn’t itch and can be faint spots that you won’t notice. 

The rash can go away without treatment but then your body will move to the next stage of the infection.

Other symptoms include swollen lymph glands, fever, sore throat and patchy hair loss. 

Latent Stage

This stage shows no visible symptoms at all. 

If you receive no treatment, you can continue to live with syphilis in your body for many years without showing any symptoms. 

Tertiary Stage 

Most who have untreated syphilis don’t get to this stage, but some do.

The tertiary stage can affect many organ systems including the heart, blood vessels, brain and nervous system.

It can develop 10 to 30 years after the first infection and can cause disease to internal organs or even death.

 Source: CDC

In 2015, syphilis cases increased in California by 29 percent from the previous year, according to California Department of Public Health.

LA, San Francisco, Fresno and Kern counties experienced the largest outbreak out of all of California. 

Investigators such as Rocha will take that information and do everything possible to track the person down who got tested along with their partners.

‘We’ll go to the person’s work, where they hang out, wherever they could possibly be,’ Rocha said. 

He has been known to stake out donut shops, street corners or any other random places where the person might turn up

‘Even if we don’t have an address or phone number we will go to that area,’ Rocha said. 

One case led him to the projects in LA where he was looking for a man with a tattoo that hung out sometimes on a street corner.

He had the description of the area and the man’s tattoo. 

That was all Rocha had to start piecing together where this man might be.

Rocha explained that it is important for the investigators to make the person feel comfortable once they find them because they are delivering news that they tested positive for a disease. 

‘Once we give them that information it is about calming them down,’ Rocha said. ‘You need to be their confidant.’ 

This helps the investigators encourage the infected to give them information about other partners they have been with so they too can get tested and treated.

Rocha said the goal is to ‘get to everybody faster and hopefully prevent the spread of this disease.’ 

Syphilis is a deadly disease that has rapidly increased over the past decade to in almost epidemic level.

In 2015, the CDC found that the number of syphilis cases had quadrupled over the past 15 years in the US to 23,872.

This number could continue to rise if people are unaware that they are infected and continue to have sex with others. 

‘If a person is completely monogamous but their partner is not then they’re exposed,’ Rocha said. 

People might not know when they first contract the infection because it is a painless sore that goes away.

Those infected will not go into treatment because they might think it has gone away.

But the infection will still be festering in the body.  

‘Symptoms will show but they might imitate other things like a rash,’ said Sophia Rumanes, chief of the division of HIV and STD programs in LACHPD. 

The infection won’t cease until it is treated with a penicillin shot.

Instead, it will pass on to other stages which can cause more serious symptoms such as rash, organ problems or even death.   

‘We want to make sure that we get to people as soon as possible and get them treated,’ Rumanes said. 

Pregnant mothers can pass the disease onto their unborn child if they’re infected, which is called congenital syphilis.

The mother will pass the infection onto the unborn child through the placenta.

LA only had seven cases of congenital syphilis in 2012, but that number has since risen to 23 cases in 2015

Symptoms of syphilis can include getting a rash on the hands or soles of the feet. This happens in the secondary stage of the disease. This patient back in 1971 got a rash all over their hands

Symptoms of syphilis can include getting a rash on the hands or soles of the feet. This happens in the secondary stage of the disease. This patient back in 1971 got a rash all over their hands

Some factors that could contribute to this rise in congenital syphilis is poverty, lack of prenatal care and substance abuse.

Women, though, are not the ones that make up the majority infected.

In fact, women made up only about 10.5 percent of the cases of syphilis in 2015 in California. 

‘(People infected) goes up in men and it will then follow with women,’ Rumanes said.

The majority of people that are contracting syphilis are men, specifically bisexual or gay. 

 Never look at it as a piece of paper. It’s a person. You have to care

Roberto Rocha, supervising health investigator

The LA-based HIV AIDS Healthcare Foundation even eradicated billboards this summer to remind people of the risk of contracting syphilis.

‘Education is a huge thing,’ Rocha said. ‘(Syphilis) is everywhere, in every single community.’

One preventive measure people can use when having sex is making sure they are using a condom with a new partner.

Male condoms are the only contraceptive barrier that prevents skin-to-skin exposure to a potentially infected area. 

The LACHPD distributes millions of condoms a year to residents in the area to help promote the use of them. 

But Rocha said budget cuts are imminent and that is preventing them from educating the community as much as they would like. 

He at points has juggled upwards of 90 separate cases because of how understaffed the department is right now.

But he makes it work because he knows how important it is to reach out to any person he can who is infected.  

Four trainees work for him and he is teaching them that the job is not about getting a paycheck.

‘Never just look at it as a piece of paper,’ Rocha said. ‘It’s a person. You have to care.’ 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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