Apr 13, 2022 - News

Syphilis, once considered an eliminable STI, is spiking in Iowa

Number of syphilis diagnoses in Iowa
Data: Iowa Department of Public Health; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

Syphilis is on the rise in Iowa, along with several other sexually transmitted infections, according to 2021 case counts from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

  • But one of the most alarming numbers is 2021's spike in congenital syphilis, which is passed to a fetus during pregnancy.

Driving the news: Iowa recorded 11 cases of congenital syphilis in 2021.

  • In comparison, there have only been 10 total cases of congenital syphilis in the last 15 years.

Why it matters: It's a sign that health resources and education aren't reaching some of the populations that need them the most, said George Walton of IDPH.

  • Especially for the 11 pregnant women affected, regular prenatal screenings should have detected syphilis before it passed on to their babies.
  • About 40% of infants born from a mom with untreated syphilis are stillborn or quickly die from the infection, the CDC reports.

Context: Syphilis is a common sexually transmitted infection that can be easily cured with antibiotics, but can become serious if left untreated.

  • In 1999, the transmission rates of it were so low that the CDC believed the U.S. could entirely eliminate infections in the country.

Yes, but: There wasn't enough funding to expand federal programming to eliminate it. Infections gradually increased, starting with gay men, NPR reports.

  • In more recent years, cases have spread to a wider range of people, including women and members of Latino and Hispanic communities.

Zoom in: Because so many agencies and medical professionals think syphilis is gone, there's decreased testing and prevention in Iowa, Walton said.

  • Last year, however, the White House announced it was granting $1.13 billion for disease intervention specialists. IDPH plans on using the state's portion of the funds to hire and train more staff to help raise STI awareness.

What they're saying: Experts say the biggest thing people can do right now is not feel shame about STD and STI testing and reduce the stigma surrounding it.

  • "STI's can affect anybody," Walton said. "It doesn't matter if you've had one sexual parter or a dozen."

Get tested: Low-cost STD and STI testing is available at the Polk County Health Department.


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