Initiatives aim to address increasing syphilis cases in Oregon


Shane Ersland


Syphilis cases are rising in Oregon, prompting health officials to coordinate efforts to address the issue.

Cara Biddlecom, interim public health director at the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), updated lawmakers on the state’s increase in syphilis cases during a Senate Interim Committee on Health Care meeting last week.

The legislature invested more than $112 million in public health modernization from 2023 to 2025, Biddlecom said, which was a steep increase from the nearly $61 million the legislature invested in the effort from 2021 to 2023. Modernization efforts can provide better opportunities to provide basic health protections, address complex health issues, and supply the workforce needed to respond to public health emergencies, she said.   

“Our intention is to create a public health system that is ready and prepared to provide equitable public health services across the entire state, so every person in Oregon has access to the same public health programs and protections,” Biddlecom said. “We know we need to proactively address complex health issues, and those are becoming more complex.” 

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A primary focus for OHA has been the increase in syphilis cases in the state. The sexually transmitted infection is treatable with medication, but it can cause serious health problems without treatment. 

“We are concerned that cases of congenital syphilis, and primary and secondary syphilis across Oregon have been on the rise for the last decade,” Biddlecom said. “Oregon currently ranks 10th in the U.S. for rate of early syphilis and (is) 16th-highest for congenital syphilis.”

Early syphilis diagnoses more than tripled among people assigned female at birth in Oregon between 2019 and 2022. The state did not have any congenital syphilis cases in 2013, but recorded 37 in 2022. 

“We had 26 counties in 2022 that reported a syphilis case in a pregnant individual, and 19 counties reported a congenital case,” Biddlecom said. “The spread of congenital syphilis has expanded to many rural communities as well. Rural areas have the largest increase overall. This is an area we need to focus on across the entire public health system.”

OHA has partnered with local public health authorities to address the issue. The Columbia Gorge Health Council is working to provide motivational interviewing training for regional community health workers to support outreach on syphilis screening and treatment, and expand the reach of community health workers to more rural and less-populated areas of the region, Biddlecom said.

“And Hood River County Health Department and North Central Public Health are working collaboratively on a social media campaign related to awareness of sexually transmitted infections with an emphasis on syphilis,” she said. “They’re also working to engage the provider community to ensure there is understanding of the treatment and testing requirements so we can increase adherence to those as we’re working to get individuals connected to early prenatal care.”

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