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State health officials report STIs continue to increase in Iowa

Iowa health officials report STI rates continue to increase. Testing rates fell during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iowa health officials report STI rates continue to increase. Testing rates fell during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State health officials are reporting the rate of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, increased in Iowa last year.

The state saw increases in nearly every reportable STI to the state, including chlamydia and HIV, said George Walton, the STD program manager for the Iowa Department of Public Health.

But the most notable increase was in the rate of syphilis cases, he said.

Preliminary data from IDPH shows 554 Iowans were diagnosed with infectious syphilis in 2021 — a 55 percent increase from 2020.

More cases of syphilis are showing up in different demographic groups, like women and residents of rural areas, which have historically had low rates, Walton said.

"It used to be very rare that we'd see syphilis cases occur in our rural areas, and that's just not the case anymore," he said. "So it's spreading geographically in the state as well."

A few years ago, about 90 percent of syphilis cases were in men, particularly men who have sex with other men, Walton said.

Last year, the number of men who reported infections was close to 80 percent, and this demographic shift can throw off health providers, he said.

"The folks who perhaps get left behind are those who have less noticeable symptoms or symptoms that are confused with other conditions, and that is fairly common with syphilis," Walton said.

This year's numbers marks a continuation of a trend in increasing STI cases in Iowa, particularly syphilis cases.

STI testing decreased during the pandemic, and Walton said many people have put off routine health screenings and other care in the past two years.

“As folks maybe have struggles getting a job, having a steady income, achieving income, quality transportation, any of those things. I mean, those are all reasons why it can make it more challenging to prioritize your health, especially for something that you may not have symptoms for," he said.

But Walton said it's important more Iowans get tested for STIs to curb the spread of the disease.

“Unless you get tested, you likely won't know you're infected," he said. "And it's really important for folks to know that even though they may not have symptoms, even though they they feel fine, these infections, when they are untreated, can cause some pretty devastating and, in some cases, lethal consequences.”

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter