Gem State Roundup

Public health officials declare an outbreak of syphilis in Idaho

By: - March 4, 2023 4:35 am
bright spiral (spirochete) shapes in a dark and cloudy image from a microscope

A microscopic image shows the Treponema pallidum bacteria that cause syphilis. (Courtesy of the CDC)

The agencies that oversee public health for Idaho’s populous southwestern region this week announced one new and one ongoing outbreak of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection.

Central District Health and Southwest District Health departments issued public announcements March 2 about outbreaks in their regions, which include the Boise-Nampa metropolitan area and several surrounding counties.

There were 52 syphilis cases in the Central District Health region in 2018. There have been 168 cases of syphilis infection in the region since Jan. 1, 2022, CDH said.

People in whom syphilis was identified ranged in age from 15 to 87, according to CDH.

There were 14 cases of syphilis identified in the Southwest District Health region in 2018. That grew to 70 cases in 2021, and SWDH declared an outbreak that year, the agency said. New infections were slightly fewer but still elevated in 2022, with 64 cases reported, it said.

Syphilis is a treatable infection with antibiotics. However, if left undetected and untreated, it can cause severe health problems such as vision loss, organ damage, neurological complications and death. Being infected does not confer immunity; a person can be infected multiple times, and each infection will require treatment.

Syphilis can also be transmitted to a baby during pregnancy. At least two such cases have been reported in SWDH since 2020, according to the agency’s publicly available data.

Such an infection can lead to a “stillbirth, early infant death or long-term health problems for the child,” according to SWDH and CDH. “All pregnant individuals should be screened for syphilis at their first prenatal appointment and potentially again before delivery to ensure there is no risk of congenital syphilis.”

a chancre (blister-like sore) on the tongue
A chancre can be a symptom of primary syphilis infection, like this one seen on a patient’s tongue. (Courtesy of the CDC)

Symptoms of syphilis include:

  • Sores
  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Joint pain

Syphilis can go undetected in people whose infection does not cause noticeable symptoms. Health officials recommend routine testing for syphilis, along with other STIs, to detect and treat infections early.

Health officials also recommend practices such as limiting the number of sex partners and using condoms for protection during sexual activity. (Idaho residents can request condoms by mail, free of charge, at

Visit for more information about syphilis transmission, testing and treatment in Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties.

Visit for more information about syphilis transmission, testing and treatment in Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties.


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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.