5 women caught eye syphilis from same man in first such outbreak

Last year, five women in Michigan who all had the same sex partner came down with the same rare condition: eye syphilis. The women, between the ages of 40–60, experienced a range of symptoms, not all shared between them, that included headaches, blurred vision, visual floaters, sensitivity to bright light, slight hearing loss, a body rash, and peeling of skin (on the abdomen and palms of the hands).

This was the first recorded cluster of ocular syphilis that originated from the same heterosexual partner, according to the CDC, and health officials suspect a new strain of the syphilis bacterium is the culprit.

From the CDC:

A cluster of five cases of ocular syphilis in women with a common male sex partner was identified in Michigan, suggesting that an unidentified Treponema pallidum strain might have been a risk factor for developing systemic manifestations of syphilis. …

Five cases occurred among southwest Michigan women, all of whom had the same male sex partner. The women were aged 40–60 years, HIV-negative, and identified as non-Hispanic White race; the disease was staged as early syphilis, and all patients were hospitalized and treated with intravenous penicillin. The common male sex partner was determined to have early latent syphilis and never developed ocular syphilis. No additional transmission was identified after the common male partner's treatment. …

A common heterosexual partner in an ocular syphilis cluster has not been previously documented and suggests that an unidentified strain of T. pallidum might have been associated with increased risk for systemic manifestations of syphilis.

And from Science Alert:

The man in question took some tracking down, but when he was tested, he was found to have early latent syphilis – a stage where the disease is still present, but there are no symptoms. He hadn't developed ocular syphilis, however, and was treated with penicillin.

Eye syphilis is only found in a few percent of overall cases (though it's on the rise). It usually affects those who have late-stage syphilis, those over 65, those reporting intravenous drug use, and those who are HIV-positive.

None of the women involved in this outbreak match any of those categories; to find five cases together in quick succession strongly suggests we're dealing with something new.