Syphilis in San Diego County 1983-1992: crack cocaine, prostitution, and the limitations of partner notification

Sex Transm Dis. 1995 Jan-Feb;22(1):60-6.


Background and objectives: Recent epidemics of syphilis have been associated with crack cocaine use and anonymous sex for drugs, suggesting a potential limitation of sex partner notification as a disease control strategy. To assess these factors in an inner city epidemic of syphilis in San Diego County, California, we performed a descriptive epidemiologic analysis.

Study design: Descriptive epidemiologic data were obtained from case investigation reports of primary and secondary syphilis.

Results: In the middle and late phases of the epidemic (1990-1992), the incidence of syphilis in the inner city area was more than six times that in remainder of the county. Illegal drug use was reported by 30% of patients. Drug use, especially crack cocaine, was related to prostitution. The estimated total number of sex partners per patient ratio was 4.2, whereas the named sex partners per patient ratio was only 1.5. Twenty-two percent of patients did not report any named partners. Overall, only 26% of the estimated total number of sex partners received treatment.

Conclusions: Expanding partner notification to include more high-risk persons identified through social networks and increasing screening among high-risk populations may improve control of inner city drug/prostitution-related syphilis epidemics.

MeSH terms

  • California / epidemiology
  • Contact Tracing / methods*
  • Crack Cocaine*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Population Surveillance
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Work / statistics & numerical data*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / complications*
  • Syphilis / epidemiology*
  • Syphilis / etiology
  • Syphilis / prevention & control
  • Urban Health


  • Crack Cocaine