Federal health officials are sounding the alarm about a "dire" and "alarming" increase in the number of babies born with syphilis, which can cause lifelong health problems and even death for newborns.
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday shows the number of newborn syphilis cases has risen more than tenfold from 2012 to 2022 and is at its highest level in at least 30 years, with 3,761 infants born with the infection last year.
Of these cases, 231 were stillbirths, and 51 were infant deaths.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can linger in the body for years, becoming more dangerous if left untreated.
An infected, untreated pregnant woman can pass it to her fetus, known as congenital syphilis. This can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or newborn death. The babies that survive can develop serious issues, such as blindness, deafness, developmental delays or skeletal abnormalities, according to the CDC.
The congenital disease is almost entirely preventable through appropriate screening and treatment, with just a single penicillin injection at least 30 days before delivery nearly always preventing the disease from spreading to an unborn baby. And even though the U.S. is facing a shortage of the drug, the CDC has encouraged health care providers to prioritize congenital cases in giving the treatment.
Despite the ability to treat congenital syphilis, almost 9 out of 10 of the babies born with syphilis in 2022 had preventable cases, which the CDC says reflects "a failure in the U.S. health system."
A lack of timely testing and adequate treatment during pregnancy resulted in 88% of the year's cases, with more than 37% of the babies with syphilis born to people who received no prenatal care and more than half of all cases born to people who tested positive for syphilis but didn't receive adequate or timely treatment.
And communities of color are being hit the hardest: The CDC's data shows babies born to Black, Hispanic or American Indian/Alaska Native mothers were eight times more likely to have the disease in 2021 than those born to White mothers.
The CDC says a lack of timely testing is the "most frequently missed opportunity" to prevent the disease, but for many people, the most significant risk factor is living in a community with high rates of syphilis. It says that considering geographic risk in addition to individual behavior can reduce stigma and bias for screenings.
The agency recommends screening for syphilis occur during a woman's first prenatal care visit, and if access to prenatal care isn't an option, screening and/or treatment should occur as soon as a pregnancy is identified.
The CDC also says emergency departments, jails, syringe service programs, and maternal and child health programs should help in the discrepancies between who is getting tested and treated, as well as encourage rapid syphilis testing be used for those who might not have a regular health care provider.
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