Stranger Things syphilis billboard: Pierce Co. Health Department goes sci-fi to fight rising cases

Health officials in Pierce County are hoping a "Strange" new billboard campaign will help raise awareness about syphilis. 

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is trying to take the mystery out of getting treatment for the STD by playing off a popular sci-fi series.   

The movie and TV-inspired campaign started last summer, but the "Stranger Things" inspired billboard is just the latest iteration of it. Their goal is to attract the public's attention so they can reverse the trend of rising cases over the past few years.  

"We are using humor to draw attention to the issue of syphilis," said Kim Aguilar, the STD, HIV program manager, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. "Syphilis, don’t let it turn your world upside down." 

Health officials don't want people to be a "stranger" to the healthcare system if they think they've been exposed.   

"We want to attract the attention of the public and one of the best ways to do that is through popular cultural references and, so that’s what we have done," said Aguilar. 

The months-long, eye-catching campaign also includes a nod to Jurassic Park and the movie Forrest Gump.  

"Syphilis isn’t extinct and sex is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get," said Aguilar. 

She says health officials got creative to get the message across. She sometimes even uses a pink stuffed toy, shaped like the bacteria, to explain how syphilis is transmitted.

"It is a special spiral corkscrew shape that allows the bacteria to penetrate the skin," she said.   

Aguilar says the disease typically starts with a non-painful bump or sore, then it moves on to a rash and hair loss.  

"This is patchy hair loss that someone might develop during the secondary stage of syphilis," said Aguilar, showing off pictures of what the rashes look like and related hair loss. 

Untreated, syphilis can get into the spinal column, causing problems with vision and hearing.  

"The numbers have increased dramatically in the past few years," said Aguilar. 

Statistics show that it's impacting more people in Pierce County than ever before, with cases quadrupling from 58 in 2016 to 711 in 2022.   

Cases among women also skyrocketed from 28% in 2020 to 42% in 2023. Two cases of congenital syphilis were also reported in babies in 2020, and that jumped to 14 cases in 2022. The health department says state and nationwide numbers have increased recently as well.

"To know that problem is even bigger because it doesn’t capture the number of babies that have died due to this disease is heartbreaking," said Aguilar. 

Even though the campaign pushes testing for those 45 and younger, health officials say everyone is at risk. 

"Frankly, the age doesn’t matter. Anyone who is sexually active should be getting tested for syphilis," said Aguilar.  

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials say the 2023 numbers aren't calculated yet, but preliminary information indicates they are on track to match 2022.  They say the entire country has also seen big increases, at 176,000 cases reported in the US in 2021.