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STD Rates On The Rise In Des Moines County

Southeast Iowa’s Des Moines County is seeing a significant increase in sexually transmitted diseases. The uptick comes after Planned Parenthood closed three of its clinics in the area last summer. But it’s not clear if that’s contributing to the increase.

According to the latest state statistics, between 2016 and 2017, the number of gonorrhea cases in Des Moines County nearly quadrupled to 142. That's almost 11 times the number of cases reported in 2014.

But it’s too soon to say if the closure of three Planned Parenthood clinics in Southeast Iowa contributed to the increase, according to George Walton, an STD Program Manager at the state Department of Public Health.

“There’s certainly some correlation there. It’s hard to definitively draw a causation," Walton said. "But yeah we did have a number of closures throughout the state and Burlington and the Des Moines County area were among those parts of the state that were affected.”

But because some STDs don’t carry symptoms, Walton says they can spread quickly if testing isn’t readily available.

“So the reason why that connection with clinic closures could very well be correct is we’re having theoretically fewer people getting screened who don’t have symptoms,” he said.

After seeing the uptick in recorded transmissions, the public health department in Des Moines County has expanded its walk-in clinic hours to do more STD screenings. And a hospital in the area, Great River Health Systems, is slated to open a new family planning clinic in Burlington, in part to meet the needs of patients who previously relied on now-shuttered Planned Parenthood facilities. 

But Walton says the increases in Des Moines County could also be tied to exposure to communities with higher rates of transmission.

"For example Illinois is pretty close to Des Moines County and Illinois historically has higher rates of gonorrhea. So that's one possible explanation," he said.

Walton adds STD rates are increasing throughout Iowa. In particular, Polk, Black HawkPottawattamie, Wapello and Woodbury Counties are seeing higher rates. While the state is still finalizing its 2017 statistics, officials don't anticipate significant changes.

In Iowa, health providers and laboratories are required to notifythe state of confirmed cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis, as well as HIV and AIDS.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter