Syphilis Is Killing Babies. It Absolutely Shouldn't

ProPublica looks at the public health care challenges of the problem
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 7, 2021 10:55 AM CST
Syphilis Is Killing Babies. A Few Shots Can Save Them

Nobody wants the Treponema pallidum bacteria in their body. Which is to say, nobody wants syphilis. A story at ProPublica focuses on one particular aspect of the STD—infections of pregnant women. The bacteria can easily penetrate the placenta, with disastrous consequences. There's a 40% chance the baby will die, and those who survive may have deformities or any of a wide range of severe health problems. The flip side of all this: If the pregnant mother takes three weekly shots of penicillin at least 30 days before giving birth, the infection will likely be wiped out and the baby will be fine. As ProPublica puts it, "Every case of congenital syphilis, when a baby is born with the disease, is avoidable." But the story makes clear that making that happen is far easier said than done, particularly when the women are poor, homeless, or otherwise disenfranchised from the health care system.

The story zeroes in on health care worker Mai Yang as she tracks down a pregnant homeless woman named Angelica in Huron, California. Angelica promises to go to the local clinic for her shots but fails to do so. Yang (who has dozens of similar clients) makes time to find her again and this time actually drives Angelica to the clinic—which is so busy it says she must return another day. Angelica promises to do so but still had not by the story's publication. The piece looks at the macro level of all this, too: Syphilis cases are rising in the US (about 130,000 in 2019, double from 2014) as are cases involving babies, with the number quadrupling to nearly 2,000 in the same period. That includes 128 deaths. (Read the full story for more, including the scramble for funding and how fighting diseases such as syphilis runs into a predictable cycle.)

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