Preliminary data from the Department of Public Health for 2021 show significant increases in some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
The Department’s STD Program Manager, George Walton, says syphilis has reached its highest numbers in the state in a generation. “In recent history, syphilis has been fairly concentrated in just a few populations in Iowa but in the last couple of years here we’ve seen a wider variety of populations become affected,” he says.
There were 554 syphilis infections reported in 2021 — an increase of 55% from the preceding year. Walton says the number of women infected took a big jump from what has trended around nine percent. “Now we’re up to you know like 23 percent or so so that’s a big shift so the number of diagnoses and women tripled in a single year men still make up the majority of cases,” Walton says.
The increased number of women affected has led to historic increases in congenital syphilis — which happens when the infection is passed from a pregnant person to the fetus or newborn. The information shows rates of syphilis among black and indigenous populations, and populations of color overall, are increasingly disproportionate.
Walton says they are addressing the issue by trying to get more people tested. “In order to get somebody treated of course we need to diagnose them and that starts with a test so we’re really trying to promote testing and urging providers to test more often perhaps in populations that they weren’t testing with us frequently before,” according to Walton.
He says syphilis is treatable and treatment is an important step. “It reduces the likelihood of the infection spreading to others and spreading into the communities and of course, it reduces the risk of complications for the individual,” Walton says. He says if left untreated, it can create some major health concerns.
Walton says syphilis can have symptoms that mimic other diseases and can be overlooked without testing. Walton says the overall increase in cases in Iowa is on the brink of being a major concern.
“And I would argue for something like congenital syphilis, I think that we are there. Because in a state like Iowa, we should have one, or maybe two or three cases per year,” Walton says. “Last year we had eleven last year — which may not sound like a lot — but that’s a lot for a state that has the population of Iowa.”
The IDPH has the “Get Yourself Tested” campaign that encourages young people to get tested and treated for STDs and HIV to protect their health and that of their partners.