In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a shortage of Bicillin L-A, the only approved treatment for syphilis in pregnant women. It is also the leading treatment for syphilis among all adults.
Now, a group of 39 public health organizations is requesting President Joe Biden's White House Drug Shortage Task Force to act quickly to ensure the shortage doesn't get any worse. The shortage has been spurred by increased demand as syphilis cases have reportedly increased.
The CDC said there was a 203% increase in congenital syphilis in the five-year period between 2017 and 2021. There has also been about a 70% increase in the number of U.S. syphilis cases from 2017 through 2021.
The groups say that when it's left untreated, syphilis can cause stillbirth or significant birth defects.
Syphilis is considered a sexually transmitted disease. It can also be transmitted from mother to child.
“The Bicillin L-A shortage is not just another drug shortage. It is the latest in a long pattern of syphilis treatment disruption that we’ve seen in America for decades,” says Jeremiah Johnson, executive director of PrEP4All. “Following Pfizer’s previous failure to ensure uninterrupted supply, we saw an enormous increase in the number of congenital syphilis cases in the US; we need the government to step in and do whatever it takes to make sure that we don’t just see ourselves with the same mess 3 or 4 years down the road.”
The CDC has urged doctors to ration the drug by only prescribing it to treat pregnant people with syphilis and babies with congenital syphilis. In other cases, the CDC is urging doctors to prescribe Penicillin G.
But even with rationing, groups say finding Bicillin L-A remains a challenge.
“It’s devastating to see the dramatic rise in completely preventable congenital syphilis cases while clinics can’t get their hands on the basic antibiotic they need to save lives and prevent profound consequences for newborn babies,” says David C. Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “The government must launch a response to the syphilis epidemic that guarantees clinics can get the Bicillin L-A they need right now and prevents the repeated shortages like this one from ever happening again”
Normally, the first sign of syphilis is sores on the mouth, penis, vagina or anus, the CDC said. It can then lead to fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue. It can lead to more serious symptoms, such as severe headaches and memory loss.
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