Syphilis infections are spiking in the Ozarks. Health experts urge testing for all ages.
While COVID-19 took our attention over the last three years, other diseases were quietly spreading in the Ozarks. One of them is syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection that’s seen a spike in cases in southwest Missouri.
In Missouri, cases of syphilis more than doubled from 2015 to 2021. But in Greene County, that number is much higher. Last year, syphilis cases were thirteen times higher than they were in 2015.
Syphilis is usually passed through close contact with an infected person, often through sex. Patients often develop sores on the skin where they were infected. After lying dormant, the bacteria causes a skin rash. If untreated, syphilis can spread to the brain, eyes, and other organs over time, causing serious damage. Often, syphilis causes no symptoms at all — meaning patients can infect others without realizing.
Kendra Findley, communicable disease administrator for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, says the rise in cases can be explained by a number of factors. Men who have sex with men have seen some of the largest increases in syphilis. Findley says illicit drug use is also linked to the spread of the infection.
The largest one-year spike in syphilis infections took place from 2020 to 2021, when Greene County cases rose from 89 to 281. Findley says the arrival of COVID-19 blocked testing and treatment for many people, because the Health Department temporarily closed the STI Clinic.
“There’s a block in time, nationwide even, where there weren’t enough testing services out there," she says. "And so I also think that that plays a factor into it.”
The STI Clinic is operating today, but the rise in syphilis is part of a larger rise in STIs in the region. The sharpest increase in the syphilis occurred in rural areas of the Ozarks.
Felicia Beasley, a nurse with the Stone County Health Department, says she’s seen more patients in the last two years coming in with symptoms of syphilis.
“We’ve actually had people who seem to have memory issues," Beasley told KSMU. "Once it reaches the later stages it can cause almost dementia-like symptoms.”
Beasley says she’s seen patients of all ages who didn’t realize they could be infected, like young women on birth control and even seniors. She says normal prevention measures that work on other STI’s don’t work as well on syphilis.
“Well, unfortunately the only way to actually prevent it is abstinence," she says. "Because with syphilis, it’s not just a matter of wearing a condom. That can help, but anywhere you have a sore, a syphilis sore on your body, you can transmit it.”
She urges people who think they might have it to get tested and treated right away. Both Findley and Beasley recommend knowing your partner’s history and getting tested. If you test positive, you can be treated with antibiotics.