Sex, Drugs Fueled Syphilis Resurgence as Number of Reported Cases Increased

Syphilis may be making an unwelcomed return in New Hampshire and Iowa as statistics say cases of the sexually transmitted diseases are increasing.

According to a report from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, three infants were born with probable congenital syphilis between May 2018 and September 2019. The rate of infectious syphilis cases in New Hampshire has risen from 54 cases reported in 2014 to 106 cases in 2018, an increase of 196 percent.

Syphilis is also on the increase in Iowa. While no numbers for the current year have been officially published, Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) says preliminary data for 2019 indicate syphilis is increasing in the state, according to KWQC.

Data from the IDPH showed that, in 2018, the number of syphilis cases had declined with 283 cases reported. That number indicated a decrease of 1.7 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that more cases of syphilis were reported in 2017 than the 24 years prior. The total reported number of syphilis cases rose from 88,053 in 2016 to 101,567 in 2017. That equals an increase of 15.3 percent.

drugs, needle sharing, syphilis, STDs, methamphetamine
Sharing syringes and having unprotected sex may have been contributing causes to the increase in reported U.S. syphilis cases. Getty

Caused by spiral bacteria known as spirochetes, syphilis is usually spread from human to human via sexual contact. According to the Mayo Clinic, it begins as a painless sore, usually on the mouth, rectum or genitals. The disease is spread through human contact with the sores.

Caught in its early stages, syphilis is easily cured with penicillin. But the disease can lie dormant in the body for years before reactivating itself.

Infants born with congenital syphilis become infected through the mother's placenta or during the birth itself. Often, an infant will exhibit no symptoms except maybe a slight rash. Later indications of the disease may include deformities of the teeth, deafness or a condition that causes the bridge of the nose to collapse called "saddle nose."

In Kansas, the number of syphilis cases is increasing. KCUR reports that in 2018, nine babies were born with congenital syphilis. In the decade before that, there had been none.

One contributing factor to the rising rates could be drug use. The IDPH is already coming to that conclusion as individuals in the early stages of syphilis also report using methamphetamine. In Finney County, Kansas, Environment Secretary Lee Norman worries about people having unprotected sex and sharing needles, then contracting an STD.

"You talk about, you know, somebody that's having three or five sexual contacts a day, when they themselves are infected, just in order to get their drugs," Norman said. "That's a public health nightmare."