U.S. Syphilis Cases in Newborns Rose 10-fold Over a Decade
TUESDAY, Nov. 7, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- An old scourge, syphilis, is returning with a vengeance in the United States, affecting not only adults but also the most vulnerable -- newborns.
Rates of congenital syphilis soared 10-fold between 2012 and 2022, according to new data released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Debra Houry said in a statement. “New actions are needed to prevent more family tragedies. We’re calling on healthcare providers, public health systems and communities to take additional steps to connect mothers and babies with the care they need.”
Congenital syphilis occurs when the illness is passed from the mother to her newborn. According to the March of Dimes, "If not treated right away, congenital syphilis can cause problems for your baby later in life," including deformities of the bones and teeth, paralysis or seizures, problems with vision and hearing and developmental delays.
In 2022, more than 3,700 babies across the United States were born with syphilis, a rate that's 10 times that of the previous decade.
The CDC blames the steep rise in cases among women of childbearing years on restrictions in access to good prenatal care, among other factors.
"Almost 9 in 10 cases of newborn syphilis in 2022 might have been prevented with timely testing and treatment during pregnancy," the agency said. "More than half were among people who tested positive for syphilis during pregnancy but did not receive adequate or timely treatment. Nearly 40 percent were among mothers who were not in prenatal care."
Race and ethnicity appear to influence the odds that a woman and her baby will contract syphilis.
"While newborn syphilis cases are increasing overall, babies born to Black, Hispanic or American Indian/Alaska Native mothers were up to eight times more likely to have newborn syphilis in 2021 than babies born to White mothers," the agency noted. Much of this disparity is due to longstanding societal issues, including a lack of access to timely and quality healthcare among minority populations.
More outreach and the creation of "tailored" strategies to reach certain populations may be needed, said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, who directs the CDC's National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.
“The congenital syphilis epidemic is an unacceptable American crisis. All pregnant mothers -- regardless of who they are or where they live -- deserve access to care that protects them and their babies from preventable disease,” Mermin noted. “Our nation should be proactive and think beyond the OB/GYN’s office and bridge prevention gaps. Every encounter a healthcare provider has with a patient during pregnancy is an opportunity to prevent congenital syphilis.”
Some concrete steps that can help curb the rise in congenital syphilis, according to the CDC, include:
Create syphilis screening programs in communities hit hardest by the rise in cases. Offer screening to anyone thought to be at higher risk for infection.
Once a pregnant woman tests positive for syphilis, begin treatment right away. This means outreach not only in hospital emergency departments, but also "syringe service programs, prisons/jails [and] maternal and child health programs," the agency said.
Work with local community leaders to help spread awareness of the threat from syphilis and to break down barriers to testing and treatment, especially during pregnancy.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already established the National Syphilis and Congenital Syphilis Syndemic Federal Taskforce, aimed at helping to curb further spread of the disease.
Find out more about congenital syphilis at the World Health Organization.
SOURCE: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, Nov. 7, 2023