Newborn Syphilis Rates Increasing Due to Failure to Test and Treat Mothers During Pregnancy: CDC
The number of children born with syphilis is increasing at an alarming rate, which federal health officials say is due to the medical community’s failure to diagnose and treat pregnant mothers with the disease before giving birth.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the latest issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on November 7, indicating that newborn syphilis infections have risen tenfold within the last decade, and almost all cases reported in 2022 could have been prevented with timely testing and treatment during pregnancy.
In a press release issued on the same day, officials warned that 3,761 babies were born with syphilis in 2022, which resulted in approximately 231 stillbirths and 51 infant deaths. The number of cases is 10 times greater than those reported in 2012, and almost 9 in 10 could have been prevented if medical professionals had tested and treated for the disease during pregnancy, CDC researchers noted.
Nearly 40% of the congenital syphilis cases occurred among mothers who did not receive prenatal care, and more than half involved mothers who tested positive for syphilis during pregnancy but did not receive timely or adequate treatment.
Congenital Syphilis Risks
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is curable, but can cause serious health consequences if left untreated. Congenital syphilis in infants occurs when an infected mother passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy.
Pregnancy syphilis infections can lead to serious or fatal health consequences for the mother and baby, including miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, birth defects, or long-term health issues. Babies born with syphilis who fail to receive treatment are at risk for developing permanent blindness, deafness, skeletal abnormalities, or developmental delays and disabilities.
Treatment involves injection of benzathine penicillin G from a qualified health professional, and early testing during pregnancy is essential in ensuring adequate treatment is received prior to giving birth.
Increasing Rates of Newborns with Syphilis
CDC officials are concerned about the soaring rates of congenital syphilis infections, indicating cases at birth increased by 755% between 2012 and 2021. They say 88% of the congenital syphilis cases in 2022 were due to medical professionals failing to timely test, diagnose, and treat the disease during pregnancy. The report also indicates 58% of the cases had no evidence of syphilis testing during pregnancy, 69% involved inadequate treatment if syphilis was discovered, and 19% did not receive any treatment at all before giving birth.
According to CDC data, 72% of the U.S. population lived in an area with high syphilis rates in 2021, and minority groups face disparity in receiving adequate testing and treatment due to lack of insurance or limited access to healthcare. Newborns among Black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Native Alaskan ethnicities were more than eight times more likely to be born with syphilis, compared to babies born to White mothers.
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CDC Congenital Syphilis Recommendations
The CDC urges members of the healthcare community to implement rapid syphilis testing of pregnant patients in emergency department, syringe service program, prisons, jail, and health program settings to ensure the disease is detected early, and treatment is given as soon as possible. Medical professionals should test again for syphilis after syphilis treatment concludes, and continue to provide follow-up care for the mother until she gives birth to catch and treat potential reinfection.
Healthcare professionals who reside in counties with high syphilis rates should offer to screen sexually active women and their partners, or any other patient considered high risk for the disease.
For more information on syphilis and congenital syphilis, consumers may visit www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns.
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