Cases of congenital syphilis continue to rise in the United States posing a serious threat to babies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report revealed there were 1,306 cases in 2018, a 185 percent increase from 2014. The disease, which is passed from parent to baby during pregnancy, also led to 94 infant deaths in 2018, a 22 percent increase from the previous year.
Most states reported a case, but 70 percent of congenital syphilis cases were in Texas, California, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana. And yet congenital syphilis is preventable.
"There are tools available to prevent every case of congenital syphilis," Gail Bolan, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a statement. "Testing is simple and can help women to protect their babies from syphilis—a preventable disease that can have irreversible consequences."
Rates started increasing in the last several years. In 2014, there were 458 babies born with the sexually transmitted disease, the highest number at the time since 2001. Though that was hardly an outbreak, it was a spike that troubled experts and raised concerns about the quality of prenatal care (or lack thereof) some moms receive.
Of the babies who were infected, about 22 percent of their moms went without prenatal care. It's a major missed opportunity: During the first trimester, doctors routinely screen expectant moms for STDs including syphilis. And though treatment is fairly simple and effective—a dose of penicillin can prevent the disease from spreading to the baby—the study found that more than 40 percent of these women didn't receive treatment for their STD. Just as troubling? Thirty percent reportedly received "inadequate treatment."
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Researchers said they hoped study prompted more doctors to screen women and their partners for syphilis. "The declines in syphilis gave us confidence that we had been doing a good job," Virginia Bowe, lead researcher and CDC epidemiologist, explained to Philly.com. But, as she pointed out, "these cases are entirely preventable, so 458 cases is 458 cases too many."
Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.