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State Health Board member dismisses concerns about syphilis, HIV, and contraception access



John D. Davis
John D. Davis (Twitter photo)

At the time Gov. Tate Reeves appointed a Flowood neurosurgeon to the State Board of Health, the doctor said he was committed to “sound, science-based policy.”

But two years later, he has at least three times made dismissive and what other health experts see as ill-informed commentary on social media about public health issues.

Gov. Tate Reeves in 2021 appointed Dr. John D. Davis to the State Board of Health to fill the six-year term of Dr. Ed “Tad” Barham, who had died.

At the time he was appointed, Davis said he was “committed to sound, science-based policy with efficient execution” and looked forward to addressing “important matters that impact the health and lives of Mississippians,” according to a Health Department press release.

In a now-deleted tweet, however, he seemed unconcerned about the rise in Mississippi babies with syphilis.

“It’s not hard to go a lifetime and never contact syphilis. It doesn’t fall out of the sky. And it’s easy to treat if you have sex with someone who has it and gives ot (sic) to you,” he tweeted in response to a Mississippi Today story about a 900% increase in congenital syphilis cases in the state.

After Mississippi Today reached out to Davis about this and other statements last week, he deleted the tweet and updated his Twitter bio to state:  “All opinions provided are mine alone, and they should not be construed as representing any other individual or organization.”

Mississippi now leads the country in cases of the sexually transmitted infection. Syphilis can cause miscarriages and death. Children born with the disease can have major malformations and life-long complications.

In 2016, eight babies in Mississippi were born and hospitalized with syphilis. In 2021, that number hit 106, according to data former State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs shared based on Health Department and hospital discharge numbers. While syphilis cases in infants have gone up nationwide, Mississippi’s rate of increase is nearly five times the national average.

Several messages left with Davis at his office in Flowood were not returned.

Reeves’ office did not respond to a request for comment on Davis’ statements.

The State Board of Health is an 11-member board that provides policy direction for the health agency.

Dr. Khalil Ghanem, president of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins medical school, shared a response to those tweets with Mississippi Today.

“While some people do live their lives without getting syphilis, others do not. What these two groups have in common is the desire to have healthy children who are afforded an opportunity to achieve success and happiness in their lives. Unfortunately, syphilis often robs the parents and their children of these opportunities,” Ghanem, whose expertise includes HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, said.

“With more than an 900% increase in the rates of this cruel but completely preventable infection, more children are being robbed of these opportunities and that should be deemed unacceptable and intolerable by all members of society who care about the welfare of children. It is critical to invest in these kids by putting an end to this senseless and preventable infection,” he continued.

Ghanem and others also point out that syphilis is not always “so easy to treat,” and many people who have syphilis do not have symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, people may be infected for years without ever seeing symptoms.

During pregnancy, Ghanem said, it is critical to identify the infection before the 20th week of pregnancy for best protection of the baby. If pregnant patients aren’t screened and treated early, complications may still arise even with treatment.

Davis expressed a similar attitude toward HIV: “It’s not difficult at all to avoid getting HIV. Does someone need government intervention to live a long life HIV (-)?”

He made the comment in response to a news story about the state of Tennessee rejecting HIV funding from the federal government – funds that Mississippi itself accepts.

One of the Health Department’s primary roles is prevention programs for HIV. It is also tasked with disease tracking and outbreak management; lab testing for syphilis, TB, and other diseases; and prevention programs for other STDs and communicable diseases.

The Health Department and the Mississippi Public Health Association did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Davis has also argued with the notion that contraception can be difficult to access for some Mississippians. In response to a tweet citing Sen. Nicole Akins Boyd explaining the problems women on Medicaid have accessing long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), Davis responded on Feb. 10: “Fine. While we work on improving access to longer acting contraception, use the pill or condoms. ‘I can’t help it that I got pregnant’ is not valid in 2023 (aside from the less than 1% that tragically result from rape.)”

Birth control pills are 99% effective at preventing pregnancy when taken consistently every day. About nine out of 100 women who use the pill have unintended pregnancies every year, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Condoms are 98% effective when used perfectly but can leak, tear or come off, resulting in reduced effectiveness.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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