The KC Strip is the sirloin of Kansas City media, a critical cut of surmisin' steak that each week weighs in on the issues of the day, dictating its column to Pitch writers.

Kill Phil 

The health department's anti-STD crew gets the party started.

Well, Kansas City, at least we're No. 1 for something.

You see, while the Royals and the Chiefs were screwing up this year, Kansas Citians were busy screwing each other. The result? By December, the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department had clocked a 150 percent increase in syphilis cases over the previous year. Meanwhile, cross-state rival St. Louis was noticing a 15 percent drop in its annual rate.

Welcome to the new syphilis capital of Missouri!

If nothing else, the numbers explain the campaign by local ad giant Fleishman-Hillard. The health department hired FH's creative geniuses in September to develop a hip way to convince young people to get tested. The crew ran public service announcements, hung posters and passed out pamphlets at more than 50 businesses, and ran bar-hopping missions at 10 metro nightclubs, all based on the sexy question "Did you take Phil home last night?" Get it? SyPHILis?

The Strip is down with that approach. After all, as you may have noticed, syphilis is enjoying a pop-culture revival. It earned a cameo as a bug passed among romping doctors on Grey's Anatomy, and there's also a fast-selling plushy called "The Pox" in a line of stuffed toys representing venereal diseases at Giantmicrobes.com. The pink, corkscrew-shaped wormy doll retails for $6.25 and is a hot seller among office pranksters. "People like throwing it at a co-worker and saying, 'You just caught the pox,'" explains Giantmicrobes spokesman Charles Foster, who this rump roast figures isn't the most well-liked guy in his office.

But before everyone freaks out about Kansas City's huge increase in STD cases, the Strip feels a duty to inform readers that we're talking about a whopping total of 117 cases last year (that's up from 39 in 2004 and 27 in 2003). Still, getting a dose from the one you love is no walk on a moonlit beach — at least that's what this meat patty imagines.

Sources with much more firsthand knowledge of the problem tell us that if it goes untreated, syphilis eventually puts some serious hurt on the ol' central nervous system. After a few decades, someone suffering from Cupid's itch might experience blindness or insanity.

Lesha Dennis, an epidemiology specialist with the health department, tells the Strip that folks in her line of work have more nicknames for their nemesis than "Phil"; these witty docs also call it "the Great Imitator" because it usually appears first as a less-serious malady that's easy to ignore, especially among the younger set who might be a lot more interested in hooking up than in thinking about what it might be like to go crazy like Al Capone and croak at the geriatric age of 48.

"The older people have experienced it and know about it. The adolescents and twentysomethings are just coming out to play, so it's ongoing education," says KC Free Health Clinic counselor David Simpson, who attracts young people to his health information Web site by giving it the porn-sounding name illdoya.com.

But because it's spread through contact with yucky open sores, you don't have to have actual sex to get it. Experts don't disagree, for example, with the Strip's theory about how someone might get an ugly infection simply from skin on skin. Say an innocent young tenderloin was grinding the night away at the Cactus Café and a nearby reveler threw his hands in the air like he just didn't care. And say one of those hands had a hivey syphilis rash on it and accidentally whapped the Strip in the face. This meat patty might get syphilis on its forehead!

The Strip's just sayin'.

What's jacked up about Kansas City's little outbreak is how it compares nationally. According to the Centers for Disease Control, syphilis rates reached an all-time low in 2000 before spiking in recent years, jumping 8 percent from 2003 to 2004. But the national average is fewer than 3 people per 100,000. At 13.6 cases per 100,000 people, Kansas City may have ended 2005 among the top five syphilis cities in the nation, possibly challenging last year's first- and second-place dens of iniquity, San Francisco and Atlanta.

Jesus, you people.

Lest you assume that the problem is limited to cowboys on bareback mountain, local health department statistics show that 35 percent of the men affected between 2003 and 2005 identify themselves as straight. Another 21 percent of the city's carriers are women.

"Kansas City is a bit different because there have been major outbreaks among men who have sex with men and some heterosexual outbreaks as well," emphasizes the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Service's statewide syphilis-elimination coordinator Melissa VanDyne. The local health department's Dennis attributes much of the crossover to bisexual men with multiple sex partners and men exchanging drugs or money for prostitution.

One recent weekday night, the Strip followed the health department's posse to Tootsies, a mostly lesbian bar that's regularly trolled by swingers. There, the festive atmosphere of a syphilis awareness party was contagious. Smokers and drinkers crowded together in a back room decorated with a plastic-covered table set with cotton balls and syringes. They watched while a health department worker named Lorne Carroll wrapped rubber tubing around the arm of a nervous young woman.

"Poke and stick, poke and stick, poke and stick," the patient squealed, careful not to spill her beer.

Onlookers cheered when the needle went in, and the cheerful health workers passed out goodie bags of condoms and lube or glow-in-the-dark "syphilis" charity bracelets. Each wore a T-shirt that read "Did you take syPHILis home last night?"

Dennis was talking excitedly about expanding the campaign to Westport. and perhaps modifying the T-shirt to say "PHILIS" to reach more straight men.

Don't say the Strip didn't warn you. Oh, and sorry about that open-sore slap to the forehead last weekend, stranger.

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