With This STD Exploding, 'Something Is Not Working Here'

Congenital syphilis cases in US newborns skyrocketed last year
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 8, 2023 7:50 AM CST
With This STD Exploding, 'Something Is Not Working Here'
This 1966 microscope photo shows a tissue sample with the presence of numerous, corkscrew-shaped, darkly stained "Treponema pallidum" spirochetes, the bacteria responsible for causing syphilis.   (Skip Van Orden/CDC via AP, File)

Alarmed by yet another jump in syphilis cases in newborns, US health officials are calling for stepped-up prevention measures, including encouraging millions of women of childbearing age and their partners to get tested for the sexually transmitted disease. More than 3,700 babies were born with congenital syphilis in 2022—10 times more than a decade ago, and a 32% increase from 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. Syphilis caused 282 stillbirth and infant deaths, nearly 16 times more than the 2012 deaths, per the AP. The 2022 count was the most in more than 30 years, CDC officials said, and in more than half of the congenital syphilis cases, the mothers tested positive during pregnancy but didn't get properly treated.

The rise in congenital syphilis comes despite repeated warnings by public health agencies, and it's tied to the surge in primary and secondary cases of syphilis in adults, CDC officials said. It's also been increasingly difficult for medical providers to get benzathine penicillin injections—the main medical weapon against congenital syphilis—because of supply shortages. "It is clear that something is not working here, that something has to change," the CDC's Dr. Laura Bachmann said. "That's why we're calling for exceptional measures to address this heartbreaking epidemic." The federal agency wants medical providers to start syphilis treatment when a pregnant woman first tests positive, rather than waiting for confirmatory testing, and to expand access to transportation so women can get treatment.

The CDC also called for rapid tests to be made available beyond doctors' offices and STD clinics to places like emergency rooms, needle-exchange programs, and prisons and jails. Federal officials again advised sexually active women of childbearing age and their partners to get tested for syphilis at least once if they live in a county with high rates. According to a new CDC map and definition, 70% of US adults live in a county with high rates. That's likely tens of millions of people, according to an AP estimate based on federal data. The CDC's recommendations are just that—there is no new federal money going to state and local health departments to bolster testing or access.

story continues below

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that for centuries was a common but feared sexually transmitted disease. In congenital syphilis, moms pass the disease on to their babies, potentially leading to death of the child or health problems like deafness, blindness, and malformed bones. The CDC has long recommended that all pregnant women should be tested for syphilis at their first prenatal visit, but poor access to prenatal care—largely in rural areas of the US—can make that difficult. Nearly 40% of last year's congenital syphilis cases involved mothers who didn't have prenatal care, the CDC said. If syphilis is diagnosed early in a pregnancy, the threat of passing it to the baby can be removed by a single penicillin shot. But experts say the later you get into pregnancy, the more likely you'll need multiple shots, and they have to be completed at least 30 days before delivery. Much more here.

(More syphilis stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.