Doctors refer to congenital syphilis as a “never event” because it is 100 percent preventable, yet cases have “skyrocketed” among newborns nationwide. Here’s what new and prospective parents need to know about this emerging health crisis.
As CNN reported, numerous states are reporting a concerning rise in cases of babies being born with syphilis, a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that can passed down in utero if a pregnant person goes untreated. Over the past decade, the U.S. has seen a staggering 700 percent increase in cases. The prevalence is highest in the South and Southwest, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Public health experts attribute this alarming trend to two main factors: the nature of the disease itself, and persistent gaps in our nation’s healthcare infrastructure.
Syphilis is sometimes called “the great pretender” because its symptoms mimic so many other illnesses. According to Mayo Clinic, patients may present with a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and rashes — in other words, there is no tell-tale symptom. It also goes through stages and can lay dormant in the body.
As a result, it can be difficult to diagnose, especially among doctors who’ve never encountered patients with syphilis. And that’s more common than you might think, considering case rates reached a historic low in 2000 and 2001.
There’s also the issue of access to comprehensive STD testing, which can be complicated for people who are low-income, uninsured, or underinsured. A recent study from the CDC found that rates of syphilis are six times higher among people who are on Medicaid, yet coverage options for testing vary by state.
Additionally, COVID-related budget cuts have forced many health departments to scrap their STD prevention programs, leading to a lack of awareness among vulnerable groups.
“It really is upsetting, because this is something that is fully preventable if we have the right screening and treatment,” Dr. Robert McDonald, who works for the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, Surveillance and Data Management, told CNN. “It’s out there; people just need to be connected with that.”
In response to the increase in congenital syphilis cases, public health officials in Arizona recently renewed an order that deems all pregnant people statewide at elevated risk of syphilis infection. More states may follow suit.
At least one prenatal screening for syphilis is currently mandated by most states in the country.
Congenital syphilis can cause serious health issues in newborns, including damage to their bones, hearing, or vision, so it is important for pregnant people to be proactive. The first line of defense is screening, which is conducted by analyzing blood samples.
The CDC recommends getting tested three times during pregnancy — once during the first trimester, again during the third trimester, and a third time immediately after giving birth. This is especially important for pregnant people who have multiple sex partners or delayed access to prenatal healthcare.
If syphilis is detected, your provider will prescribe you an antibiotic such as pencillin, which kills the harmful bacteria. This can prevent your child from being born with the infection. In fact, treating syphilis at least 30 days before delivery cuts your child’s chance of contracting it by 98 percent.
In terms of prevention, adopting safer sex practices is crucial. This means using a condom or dental dam during sex to prevent the spread of STDs.
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