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Congenital Syphilis: A Preventable STD On The Rise In Newborns

By Dr. Hazel Dean,

April is STD Awareness Month. There is much we can do together to help prevent STDs, and I encourage you to take a look at all of the activities for this month. But for this blog, I want to focus on one STD in a specific population: syphilis in newborns (known as congenital syphilis).

The latest CDC published report on congenital syphilis (CS) shows a sharp increase in cases between 2012 and 2014. Does this matter?

Yes. CS matters. A lot. It matters because babies born with syphilis can face major health problems, even death. It is important for clinicians to identify and treat pregnant women who have syphilis as public health emergencies.

Historically, up to 40% of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection.  Those who live may be born with bone deformities, severe anemia, an enlarged liver or spleen, jaundice, nerve defects such as blindness and deafness, or meningitis which can cause developmental delays and seizures. Additionally, these babies may experience a failure to thrive.

For these reasons I call on health departments, hospitals, community health clinics, federally qualified health centers, independent clinicians, as well as women of child-bearing age to learn more about and take action to prevent syphilis. These devastating outcomes can, and must be prevented.

The Numbers

CDC’s analysis showed a 38% increase in the rate of CS cases, from per 100,000 live births. This rate is the highest in 15 years. In 2012, there were 334 cases of CS. By 2014, this number had increased to 458 cases.

In 2014, 31 of 50 states reported at least one CS case, so this is not an isolated event or confined to a particular part of the United States. In fact, this shows an increase from 2013, when only 25 states reported at least one case. This means that 24% more states reported CS cases year over year from 2013 to 2014.

The Solutions

This resurgence shows that we are missing opportunities to screen and treat pregnant women for STDs in both public and private health care systems. To stop this resurgence, we need to embrace the theme of STD Awareness Month and take three easy steps:

  • Talk openly to your partner(s) and your healthcare provider about sexual health and STDs.
  • Test. It’s the only way to know for sure if you have an STD.
  • If you test positive for an STD, work with your doctor to get the correct treatment.

Primary prevention, partner services, and prenatal screening and treatment are essential to CS prevention. Because late or inadequate of pregnant women is a leading cause of CS, it is crucial to prevent syphilis in women of reproductive age.

There is much that we as individuals can do to protect our health by talking to our health care providers. Both public health and private clinicians can do more by taking sexual histories, screening pregnant women, and partnering with local health departments. A case of congenital syphilis is a sentinel public health event, so preventing it is a public and individual health necessity.

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