The number of babies born with syphilis in the United States has risen sharply, more than doubling in the last five years to reach a 20-year high.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on Tuesday showing that the number of babies born with syphilis rose from 362 in 2013 to 918 last year, with the increases sharpest in the South and West. That is the highest rate in 20 years, the report showed. As USA Today reported, the increase has raised concern among medical professionals about proper testing and treatment for the disease.
Syphilis can be transmitted from women to their fetuses during pregnancy or to babies during birth, the report noted. Babies that contract that bacterial infection can be at serious risk for developmental problems or even death, as syphilis contributed to 77 stillbirths or newborn deaths last year.
The numbers are causing alarm for medical professionals.
“We are failing pregnant women in the United States,” said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “We are seeing almost 1,000 babies born with syphilis that can easily be prevented.”
Harvey called for funding to create a more robust program to test and treat mothers, similar to the one used to stop the transmission of HIV from mothers to newborn babies. That transmission is now very rare due to proper testing and treatment for pregnant women.
Medical experts believe the increase in babies born with the syphilis infection is a natural outgrowth of the increase in syphilis rates among all women.
“I am not surprised that congenital syphilis has increased because we have been seeing increasing cases of syphilis among women of child-bearing ages,” Dr. Pablo J. Sanchez, a principal investigator in the Center for Perinatal Research at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told CNN. “So it’s not surprising but it is of major concern.”
The number of babies born with syphilis surged from 362 in 2013 to 918 in 2017, a 154% increase, a new CDC report says. https://t.co/8IP3WvboYK— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) September 25, 2018
Sanchez agreed that screening before birth is of the utmost importance because the infection can be difficult to detect among newborns.
“The majority of babies who are born to mothers with untreated syphilis look well at birth and that’s why it’s so important to screen women during pregnancy to detect the infection,” said Sanchez.
When syphilis is not detected among newborns, it can remain dormant until symptoms begin to show at age 8 or 10, the report noted. By that point, congenital syphilis can affect other parts of the body, causing hearing loss and eye problems, Sanchez told CNN.