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Funding cuts lead to rise in sexually transmitted diseases in the United States.
Science & Health

Funding cuts lead to rise in sexually transmitted diseases in the United States.

In June, state and local health agencies in the United States discovered that they would no longer receive the remaining $1 billion of funding aimed at bolstering the workforce of individuals responsible for monitoring and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. This is particularly concerning due to the significant rise in syphilis cases.

The consequences were immediate.

According to Dawn Cribb from the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, there was a significant increase of 44% in congenital syphilis cases from 2021 to 2022. The state was supposed to receive over $10 million to strengthen its STD program budget, but instead, the budget for STD prevention was reduced by 75%. This has greatly diminished the state’s ability to address the issue of syphilis.

Some states reported to The Associated Press that the reduction of funds is impacting their ability to grow their team of disease intervention workers. These individuals are responsible for conducting contact tracing and outreach, and play a crucial role in halting the spread of syphilis. Although the number of syphilis cases in the U.S. reached a low point in 2000, it has been steadily increasing every year since. In 2021, there were 176,713 reported cases, which is a 31% increase from the previous year.

According to Sam Burgess, Director of the STD/HIV Program for the Louisiana Department of Health, it was truly devastating because we had put in a lot of effort to strengthen our workforce and introduce new initiatives.

He said that his state was originally supposed to receive over $14 million, but only received $8.6 million until January 2026. He also mentioned that they are currently trying to find ways to fill the remaining funding gaps.

Although men who engage in sexual activities with other men are at a higher risk for syphilis, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health officials nationwide have observed a rise in the number of pregnant women transmitting syphilis to their newborns. This can result in severe health complications for infants such as vision loss and bone damage, and may even lead to stillbirths. In the year 2021, there were 77.9 cases of congenital syphilis per 100,000 live births.

Disease intervention specialists frequently connect infected mothers and their partners with treatment for syphilis, which causes mild symptoms in adults such as fever and sores. This prompt action can help prevent the transmission of syphilis to newborns. Additionally, these specialists can assist pregnant patients in accessing prenatal care.

Deneshun Graves, a public health investigator with the Houston Health Department, stated that it can be highly emotional to explain when a mother is unaware of her syphilis diagnosis. Graves also expressed that there may be feelings of regret for not catching the infection sooner, which could have prevented further complications.

The Houston Health Department is currently undertaking a “swift community outreach initiative” due to a 128% rise in syphilis cases among women from 2019 to 2022, and a jump from 16 to 151 cases of congenital syphilis between 2019 and 2021.

The STD/HIV department was originally allocated $10.7 million from the government grant, but will actually receive about 75% of that amount.

The funds were utilized by the department to employ disease intervention specialists and epidemiologists, including Graves. However, Lupita Thornton, a manager for public health investigators, expressed a need for “twice the resources” and had intended to decrease the workload for her team by hiring additional staff.

This would be beneficial to Graves, as he handles over 70 cases concurrently.

Graves stated that there are individuals who refuse to seek treatment and others who ignore phone calls, requiring repeated attempts to contact them.

The state of Mississippi is experiencing a rise in cases of congenital syphilis, as indicated by a recently published study that revealed a tenfold increase between 2016 and 2022. Health authorities attribute this to a lack of funding and inadequate access to prenatal care, which hinders their efforts to curb the spread of syphilis.

The Mississippi State Department of Health was scheduled to receive over $9 million in federal grants over a span of five years in order to grow their disease intervention team. According to agency director Dr. Dan Edney, one of his primary focuses currently is securing additional funds from other areas within the state’s health budget.

The state of Arizona has the highest incidence of congenital syphilis in the country, with a rate of 232.3 cases per 100,000 live births. According to Rebecca Scranton, deputy bureau chief of infectious disease and services, federal funding has assisted the state Department of Health Services in resolving a backlog of non-syphilis sexually transmitted disease investigations that had been delayed for multiple years.

Scranton expressed relief that they had reached a stage where they could catch their breath and truly address the issue at hand.