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News > Science and Tech

Syphilis Cases in US Newborn Babies Hits 20-Year High Due to Poor Prenatal Care

  • Health experts report 2017 held the highest recorded number of cases in 20 years with 918, double the amount registered in 2013, 362.

    Health experts report 2017 held the highest recorded number of cases in 20 years with 918, double the amount registered in 2013, 362. | Photo: Reuters

Published 27 September 2018

If caught early, syphilis can be treated with penicillin; however, left untreated it can lead to miscarriage, sickness or newborn death.

The growing lack or increased inaccessibility of proper prenatal care in the United States has caused a rise in the rate of syphilis in newborns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday.


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According to the CDC's annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, the figure has doubled since 2013 reaching a 20 year high of 918 in 2017, having stood at 362 in 2013.

"We are failing pregnant women in the United States. ... We are seeing almost 1,000 babies born with syphilis that can easily be prevented," David Harvey, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, said of the data in the report while describing the problem as a systematic failure by public health officials. 

If caught early, the bacterial infection can easily be treated with small doses of penicillin; however, when left untreated the disease can travel from the mother to the fetus during pregnancies or during birth.

“When passed to a baby, syphilis can result in miscarriages, newborn death, and severe lifelong physical and mental health problems,” Jonathan Mermin, the CDC's director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

Experts attribute the rising figures to the lack of health care — almost 9% of the population battles with this — from being uninsured. 

Despite the presence of Medicaid, a state-federal health insurance available for low-income families, a 2016 report from the CDC showed that 15 percent of U.S. women receive inadequate prenatal care, while nearly 25 percent didn’t receive treatment prior their first trimester.

The epidemic, which was reported in 37 states, was most prominent in the southern states with Louisiana at the forefront.

In 2016, one in three women who were tested for syphilis during their pregnancy, having either contracted and transferred the disease to their infants sometime afterward for failing to obtain proper treatment.

Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said, “Early testing and prompt treatment to cure any infections are critical first steps, but too many women are falling through the cracks of the system.

“If we’re going to reverse the resurgence of congenital syphilis, that has to change. To protect every baby, we have to start by protecting every mother,” Bolan said.

Harvey says he hopes to launch a federally-funded program, similar to the Ryan White Part D HIV-testing program, which will offer care to expecting mothers and prevent mother-to-newborn transmission of syphilis.

Mermin agreed, “No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment.”

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