Number of babies born with syphilis on the rise in the United States, rate quadrupled in 5 years
- Of the 1,870 babies with congenital syphilis in 2019, almost two-thirds were black or Hispanic.
- The disease caused 94 stillbirths and 34 deaths in 2019, an increase from 2018.
- Congenital syphilis can be prevented with screening and antibiotics.
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Newborn deaths from congenital syphilis on the rise in the United States, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention STD report.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection – characterized by a sore on the genitals, rectum or mouth – which is usually spread sexually, according to the doctor. Mayo Clinic. Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant woman with syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy.
In 2019, 1,870 babies were born with congenital syphilis, an increase of 291% from 2015. In 2013, congenital syphilis occurred 9.2 times out of 100,000 births, and now the number has risen sharply at 48.5 cases per 100,000 births.
“The rise in congenital syphilis is unacceptable in America for a country that has this amount of resources and wealth,” David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of Directors of STDs, told Insider. “Every failure of a baby born with syphilis is a sentinel public health failure.”
Experts are surprised by this trend. They said the increase is likely related to insurance coverage, as women without health insurance are slow to seek antenatal care in time for syphilis detection and treatment.
Dr Edward Hook, professor of medicine and expert in STD prevention at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also said the increase could be due to the drug use epidemic. Pregnant women addicted to drug use may be less likely to engage in the health care system and therefore more likely to go undiagnosed.
Other congenital infections show a downward trend, but syphilis is different
Harvey finds this increase surprising, given that other mother-to-child infections have declined.
While the rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have been at an all time high for six years in a row, cases of perinatal infections have plummeted. Perinatal HIV rates, for example, fell from 141 in 2014 to 65 in 2018.
Among babies born with congenital syphilis in 2019, nearly two-thirds were either black or Hispanic. “This is another example of people with unequal access to health care,” Harvey said.
In the same group, there were 94 stillbirths and 34 deaths in 2019, compared to 79 stillbirths and 15 deaths in 2018. In general, 40% of babies born with congenital syphilis may be stillborn or die.
Congenital syphilis can be prevented with testing and treatment
Surviving newborns with congenital syphilis can develop lifelong health problems such as deformed bones, meningitis, or severe anemia. These symptoms can develop a few weeks or years after birth.
Although congenital syphilis can be prevented with antibiotics, 40% of cases have occurred because a mother did not receive treatment despite being diagnosed with syphilis in a timely manner. 36% of cases occurred because a mother did not get antenatal care in a timely manner.
CDC recommended all pregnant women are tested for syphilis at their first antenatal visit. But if women live in communities with high rates of syphilis and are susceptible to infection, they recommend getting tested twice in the third semester and using condoms.