Health department: Syphilis screening unnecessary

Published 4:59 pm Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mississippi spent about $3 million during the past decade on premarital syphilis screenings the Department of Health says is unnecessary.

Mississippi is the only state that still requires couples to take blood tests before marriage, though the District of Columbia also still mandates a test, the Clarion-Ledger reported in its Monday edition.

A bill seeking to end the tests was killed in the House of Representatives during this year’s regular session. It was sponsored by Rep. Sydney Bondurant, R-Grenada, who is a physician, and endorsed by the state Department of Health.

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“The House voted to ignore the only (doctor in the House) and the state health officer,” said Bondurant, a member of the Public Health and Human Services Committee.

Mississippi spends about $330,000 a year on the tests despite a decade-old study by the Institute of Medicine that questioned the effectiveness of premarital blood tests. The institute recommended ending the tests because so few syphilis cases are detected among couples.

“People applying for marriage licenses are typically at a lower risk than the general population,” Institute spokeswoman Christine Stencel said.

About 16,550 marriage licenses were issued in the state in 2006 — the most recent figures available. Couples can go to county health department offices or private physicians for the tests, which cost about $10 per person.

Mississippi Department of Health spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said the number of positive tests in Mississippi has not been enough to show that testing benefits the state. The state Health Department reported 132 new cases of syphilis last year.

Less than a third of 1 percent of 26,285 premarital syphilis tests in fiscal year 2007 detected new syphilis cases, Sharlot said.

Most premarital blood test laws date to the 1930s, before syphilis treatment was available. Penicillin is considered an effective cure today for the sexually transmitted disease.

Bondurant said he would bring up the issue again if it appears some of his colleagues change their attitudes.

Mississippi ranks 15th among states in the rate of syphilis cases per 100,000 people, according to a 2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

The institute recommended efforts be directed at widespread screening and intervention, which yield better results.

“The whole concept behind this type of testing is you want to pick up on cases before an innocent party is infected,” Bondurant said.