(NEW YORK) — The CDC is warning about “dire” levels of babies born with syphilis in the U.S., with a new analysis showing a tenfold increase from 2012 to 2022. The agency’s data shows that 3,761 babies were born with syphilis in 2022, and more than 200 babies died from the disease that year.
Nine in 10 of those cases of babies born syphilis could have been prevented with better testing and treatment for syphilis in pregnant people, according to the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that has been on the rise in recent years. The infection can be dangerous if left untreated — particularly during pregnancy. “You may not know you have syphilis, and that’s why it’s so important, particularly when pregnant, to get tested,” said Dr. Debra Houry, the chief medical officer at the CDC.
CDC data shows that more than half of the babies born with congenital syphilis in 2022 were born to women who tested positive for syphilis during pregnancy but did not get appropriate treatment. “This increase in cases of congenital syphilis really speaks to a large issue about healthcare disparity, including awareness and access to prenatal care,” said ABC News Medical contributor Dr. Alok Patel.
Syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics, which can be given safely during pregnancy. “Treating at the right time can prevent nearly all congenital syphilis cases,” Patel said. “So any case of syphilis in a newborn baby represents a failure of healthcare access.”
The CDC is calling for “exceptional measures” from healthcare providers and public health officials to slow these trends. That includes testing pregnant people in more settings, including at emergency departments, jails and needle exchange programs.
The CDC recommends screening for syphilis during pregnancy at all first prenatal care visits or as soon as pregnancy is identified. People with higher risk should also be screened again at 28 weeks and at delivery, according to the CDC.
Houry defined “high risk” as “people who live in a community that has high rates of syphilis, engage in unsafe sexual behaviors, or had prior sexually transmitted infections.”
In addition to increased testing, Houry said doctors should also consider using more timely “rapid tests” which can give a quick response and don’t require days of waiting for results to be sent to a laboratory. Rapid tests, while less accurate, could give doctors an opportunity to start patients on treatment if they are concerned the patient might not be able to come back for a follow up visit.
The new uptick in congenital syphilis could signal a “very concerning warning of a looming public health disaster that we will see if you continue to have poor access to maternity and prenatal care,” Patel said. “We can’t let this get any worse.”
Anna Roesler, MD, is a resident physician in pediatrics at Jacobi Medical Center and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.
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