Syphilis Is a Very Real Problem in Austin

One in 10 positive STI tests showed syphilis at Kind Clinic

Demand for STI testing almost tripled at Kind Clinic in the last fiscal year (Photo by Getty Images)

STI rates have been on the rise in Austin, and especially concerning is the resurgence in syphilis.

One in five of the 11,000 people tested at Kind Clinic this fiscal year tested positive for an STI, according to the Kind Clinic’s recent Central Texas Community Health Report. Of people who tested positive for an STI, about 12% tested positive for syphilis. Overall, demand for STI testing almost tripled.

Syphilis rates aren’t only ticking up in Austin. The Houston Health Department reported in July that a syphilis outbreak was responsible for a nine-fold rise in positive cases across Harris county. Nationally, the CDC saw a syphilis surge from 2020 to 2021 that hasn't slowed. Meanwhile, Pfizer warned in June of shortages in penicillin (an antibiotic used to treat syphilis).

Syphilis is a sneaky disease, known as “the great pretender” for how long it can live in your body without being noticed. But what caused the increased spread?

“Unfortunately, Texas is one of those locations as a whole, where access to health care has not been prioritized by elected officials,” Kind Clinic Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sandra Guerra told the Chronicle. The COVID-19 pandemic also temporarily diverted medical offices’ resources away from STI prevention, preventing regular check ups. Vivent Health Medical Director Dr. Aliza Norwood told us, “a lot of people don't have access to easy testing and treatment or may not have the money to pay for testing and treatment. … That definitely impacts our ability to contain outbreaks and contain STDs in general.”

The best way to combat this spread of syphilis, and possible other waves of STIs is to get tested regularly and treated whenever you come back positive, doctors told us. And use condoms. Though clinic directors didn’t point to a drop in condom use locally, there is some evidence of reduced condom use since the pandemic internationally. In 2022, Bloomberg reported that the world’s largest maker of condoms saw a 40% drop in sales between 2020 to 2022, and a 2021 Australian study surveying college students found a general decline in condom use post-pandemic.

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