Home In crisis: Congenital syphilis rates up 10 times in last decade, experts demand action
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In crisis: Congenital syphilis rates up 10 times in last decade, experts demand action

Crystal Graham
baby family parent feet child
(© Simon Dannhauer – stock.adobe.com)

More than 3,700 babies were born with syphilis in 2022, more than 10 times the number in 2012, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 282 cases resulted in stillbirths or infant deaths.

“The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” said CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H. “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.”

Syphilis during pregnancy can lead to stillbirth, infant death and lifelong medical issues but can be prevented with testing and treatment during pregnancy.

Barriers to proper prenatal care often include lack of insurance or substance use disorder or limited healthcare access.

“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,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. “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 counties were found to have high rates of syphilis, studies have shown. Also, babies born to Black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native mothers are eight times more likely to have newborn syphilis than babies born to White mothers.

The CDC is encouraging women of reproductive age to:

  • Consider starting syphilis treatment right away following a positive rapid test
  • Use rapid syphilis testing and treatment during pregnancy
  • Address syphilis before pregnancy in counties with high syphilis rates
  • Work with community health leaders who can help to overcome additional barriers for testing and treatment during pregnancy

The National Coalition of STD Directors is disappointed in the national response to the report.

“The number of entirely preventable congenital syphilis cases in America is appalling and reflects a collapse of the health systems we rely on to keep families safe,” said David C. Harvey, executive director of NCSD. “This shameful crisis is 20 years in the making and is accelerated by a perfect storm of funding cutbacks and bureaucratic red tape.”

NCSD is demanding an investment of $1 billion to increase testing and treatment and asking the White House to create a syphilis response coordinator as part of the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy.

“These 3,761 new congenital syphilis cases shock the conscience, but they are the predictable outcome of STI public health funding cuts and a lack of willpower to solve this problem,” said Harvey.

The numbers may continue to worsen, Harvey said, due to the ongoing shortage of Bicillin L-A, the drug used to treat syphilis.

NCSD said waiting on recommendations until next year is unacceptable.

“What we need now is action, not bureaucratic red tape and recommendations,” said Harvey. “The 2022 congenital syphilis numbers are already four times higher than pediatric AIDS diagnoses at their peak in 1992 – a case level deemed horrific at that time that spurred a huge national response and allocation of millions of dollars for prevention, care and research.

“This crisis may have been 20 years in the making, but it cannot go on. Without an exceptional and immediate investment by the Administration and Congress, we have no hope of protecting our communities from this growing emergency.”

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Published date: March 1, 2023 | 6:57 pm

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.