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There has been a significant increase in the number of newborns in the United States diagnosed with syphilis in 2022.
Science & Health

There has been a significant increase in the number of newborns in the United States diagnosed with syphilis in 2022.

Concerned by a recent increase in instances of syphilis in infants, American health authorities are urging for heightened preventative actions. This includes promoting testing for the sexually transmitted illness among millions of women and their partners of reproductive age.

In 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 3,700 cases of babies born with congenital syphilis. This is a 10-fold increase from a decade ago and a 32% rise from 2021. Additionally, there were 282 stillbirths and infant deaths caused by syphilis, which is almost 16 times higher than the number of deaths in 2012.

According to CDC officials, the number of cases in 2022 was the highest in over 30 years. In over half of the cases of congenital syphilis, the mothers tested positive during pregnancy but did not receive adequate treatment.

Despite multiple alerts from public health organizations, there has been an increase in cases of congenital syphilis. According to officials from the CDC, this rise is linked to the growing number of primary and secondary syphilis cases in adults. Additionally, obtaining benzathine penicillin injections, the main treatment for congenital syphilis, has become more challenging for healthcare providers due to shortages in supply.

Dr. Laura Bachmann from the CDC stated that it is evident that there are issues that need to be addressed and changes must be made. This is why we are advocating for extraordinary actions to combat this devastating epidemic.

The national organization desires healthcare professionals to immediately begin treating syphilis in expecting mothers upon receiving a positive test, rather than waiting for further confirmation. They also recommend increasing transportation options for these women in order to receive treatment. Additionally, the CDC suggests making rapid tests more widely accessible in places like emergency rooms, needle-exchange programs, and correctional facilities, not just in doctors’ offices and STD clinics.

Federal authorities once again recommended that women who are sexually active and of childbearing age, as well as their partners, get tested for syphilis at least once if they reside in a county with high rates. According to a recent map and criteria established by the CDC, 70% of adults in the United States live in a county with high rates of syphilis. Based on data from the federal government, this is estimated to be tens of millions of individuals.

The suggestions from the CDC are simply suggestions; there is no additional funding being provided by the federal government to state and local health departments for the purpose of increasing testing or access. Certain state health departments have expressed concerns about being overburdened with treatment and prevention efforts. However, Illinois recently announced the implementation of a phone line for healthcare providers to aid in record retrieval, consultation, and assistance with mandated reporting.

Syphilis, a bacterial infection, was once a prevalent and dreaded sexually transmitted disease. The number of new infections significantly decreased in the U.S. after the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, reaching a low point in the late 1990s. However, cases began to rise again in 2002, particularly among men who have sex with men, although it is also spreading among other demographics.

In cases of congenital syphilis, it is possible for mothers to transmit the disease to their babies, which can result in the child’s death or health complications such as deafness, blindness, and skeletal deformities. Incidence rates have been increasing among various racial and ethnic demographics.

According to Dr. Mike Saag, a specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, syphilis may go undetected in women because it is difficult to diagnose without a blood test. Not all individuals experience painless sores, wart-like lesions, or other noticeable symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a longstanding recommendation for all pregnant women to get tested for syphilis during their initial prenatal check-up. However, limited access to prenatal care, particularly in rural regions of the United States, can hinder this recommendation. According to the CDC, nearly 40% of congenital syphilis cases last year were linked to mothers who did not receive prenatal care.

Early detection and treatment of syphilis during pregnancy can prevent transmission to the baby with a single dose of penicillin. However, as pregnancy progresses, the likelihood of needing multiple doses increases and they must be administered at least 30 days prior to delivery.

Dr. Nina Ragunanthan, an OB/GYN at the Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, has treated patients who have missed a shot while on a three-shot regimen. These patients face challenges such as transportation, job, and child care issues that prevent them from completing their treatment. Despite their efforts to receive all three shots, missing even one can disrupt their progress.

Additionally, health officials across the United States have informed the AP that the limited availability of syphilis medication is hindering efforts to decrease the number of cases. While non-pregnant individuals can use doxycycline to treat syphilis, there is concern that the required treatment period of 14 to 28 days may be challenging to complete, resulting in individuals remaining infected.

Pfizer is the nation’s sole supplier of penicillin shots. Earlier this year, company officials said penicillin was in short supply because of increased demand. Pfizer also said the shortage may not be resolved until next year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that the limited supply did not impact the number of congenital syphilis cases in 2022. They also noted that, despite the shortage, there have been no reports of patients not receiving their required vaccinations.