Newborn syphilis cases rise "at a heartbreaking rate," CDC reports

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New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is bringing attention to an alarming increase in babies born with syphilis over the past decade.

According to the report, published Tuesday, more than 3,700 babies in the U.S. were born with syphilis in 2022 — more than 10 times the number in 2012. The 2022 case count is the largest in more than 30 years, CDC officials said.

"The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate," said CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Debra Houry in a news release. "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 is a sexually transmitted infection that, during pregnancy, can be passed on to the baby. It has the potential to cause tragic outcomes including miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and lifelong medical issues. The 3,761 cases of congenital syphilis reported in 2022 included 231 stillbirths and 51 babies who died in infancy, the CDC said.

Lack of timely testing and adequate treatment were factors in 88% of congenital syphilis cases in the United States, the report found. With testing and treatment, officials estimated almost 9 in 10 cases of newborn syphilis in 2022 might have been prevented.

In a press briefing, Dr. Laura Bachmann, the chief medical officer of CDC's Division of STD Prevention, said a combination of individual and systemic barriers to testing and treatment resulted in missed prevention opportunities.

"These barriers may include lack of ongoing health coverage, living in health care or maternal care deserts, transportation limitations, challenges posed by substance use disorder, housing instability, poverty and racism," she said.

And while newborn syphilis cases are increasing nationwide and across every racial and ethnic group, Bachmann noted that Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native communities are experiencing "the brunt of the newborn syphilis epidemic."

Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, called the epidemic 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," he said in the news release. "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."

–Alexander Tin contributed reporting.

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