Global Health Initiative Targets Syphilis in Detroit, Other Pressing Health Issues Here and Abroad

August 20, 2015


DETROIT – Henry Ford Hospital has launched a pilot study to screen men for syphilis and HIV in hope of controlling a syphilis rate in the city of Detroit that is among the highest in the country.

Henry Ford will screen 1,000 men ages 18-34 who are seen in the Emergency Department using a finger stick blood test. Patients who test positive may immediately receive benzathine penicillin, the standard care of treatment. They also will be scheduled for follow-up appointments in Henry Ford’s Infectious Diseases clinic or Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and receive education about safe sex practices.

The study is being funded from more than $1.09 million in grants and donations received by the Global Health Initiative (GHI) at Henry Ford Health System, a unique collaboration of regional health care and academic institutions that seek to address some of the most pressing health care issues facing underserved populations in Michigan and internationally.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can have long-term complications if not treated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A person becomes infected by having direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal or oral sex. Symptoms come in three stages: primary, secondary and late.

Syphilis is found mostly in men who have sex with men. The CDC says syphilis sores make it easier to transmit and acquire HIV, estimating there is a two to five fold increased risk of acquiring HIV if exposed to syphilis.

“Syphilis is very treatable,” says Norman Markowitz, M.D., an Infectious Diseases physician and director of HIV Services who is the principal investigator for the study at Henry Ford Hospital. “But for a variety of socioeconomic factors, individuals are not being diagnosed. With our study we’re hopeful we can identify more cases and provide early treatment to prevent future transmission.”

The GHI sought to examine ways to address Detroit’s high incidence of syphilis, whose rate of new diagnosis in January 2014 was 4.5 times higher than the rest of the metro Detroit area, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), and among the highest in the country. The high rate is driven by African-Americans males ages 13-24 who have sex with men.

“Seventy-five percent of people who get syphilis are having sex with men,” Dr. Markowitz says.

Launched in 2014, the Detroit-based GHI joins the growing focus of many United States and international governmental and health agencies striving to improve health care and health care equity for people across the globe. It’s based at Henry Ford and comprises collaborations with Detroit’s Department of Health and Wellness, MDHHS, Oakland University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University, and will focus on issues addressing health care issues facing underserved populations in Michigan, as well in Haiti, Myanmar, Thailand, Columbia, India, Peru and Guatemala.

“Through research, clinical care and training, we hope to have an impact on creating best practices and solutions for these important public health issues,” says GHI manager John Zervos. “We have a highly skilled and diverse group of community partners who are committed to helping the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.”

The GHI was born from a donation from Stanford Ovshinsky, the late Michigan-based inventor, scientist and philanthropist known for his inventions of the nickel-metal hydride battery used widely in laptop computers, digital cameras and cell phones, as well as solar panels, liquid crystal displays and rewritable CD and DVD discs.

“The Global Health Initiative strives to continue his legacy,” Zervos says. “He understood the power of global collaboration, what southeast Michigan had to offer the rest of the world, and how an international collaboration like GHI could benefit those here at home and aboard.”

The GHI has a number of projects under way locally and internationally. Among them:

  • Developing an electronic and mobile health platform to train community health workers to improve health in Detroit and internationally.
  • Evaluating novel strains of malaria in Haiti.
  • Conducting TB and HIV co-infection research at the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases in India.
  • Investigating strategies for antibiotic resistance and stewardship at Christian Medical College in India.
  • Increasing immunization coverage for vulnerable populations in Detroit.
  • Surveying health care utilization and access opportunities in Haiti and Colombia.
  • Investigating Amazonian plant extracts in Peru for potential discovery of new antibiotics.

Media Contact:
David Olejarz
(313) 874-4094