US public health officials are calling for urgent action to curb an alarming increase in the number of babies born with syphilis.
In infants, syphilis can be a severe, disabling and sometimes life-threatening infection. When babies get it in the womb from an infected mother, it’s called congenital syphilis.
Each congenital syphilis case is considered a “never event” – a tragic outcome that should never happen – because it’s nearly always preventable if it is caught and treated in time. A single course of penicillin, given at least a month before the end of a pregnancy, nearly always prevents infected mothers from passing the bacteria to their babies.
But more than 3,700 babies were born with syphilis in the US in 2022, a 32% increase from the year before and a tenfold, or 1,000%, rise since 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. Nearly 300 of those babies died or were stillborn, according to a new report published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The new numbers are the highest reported in the US in more than 30 years, said Dr. Laura Bachmann, chief medical officer in the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention in a media briefing.
“Despite repeated warnings and calls to action, the congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” said Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC’s chief medical officer, in a news release.
In addition to stillbirth, untreated syphilis may damage a baby’s organs and bones or harm vision and hearing. It can lead to lifelong health problems.
Using uncharacteristically strong terms, the CDC said Tuesday that the situation in the US has reached “dire” and “alarming” levels, and it called on the entire medical community – not just obstetrician/gynecologists – to help find and treat infected people to protect newborns.
Failing efforts to stem the tide
Dr. Deepika Sankaran, a neonatologist at Adventist Health and Rideout Regional Medical Center in Marysville, CA, says this is the right approach, though it’s not an easy mindset to change in medicine.
In May, Sankaran told CNN that she was so alarmed by the number of babies she was treating with syphilis that she had tried to start a new program in her hospital’s emergency department. She asked ER physicians to test every pregnant woman they saw for syphilis.
“That is not happening, unfortunately,” she told us on Monday when we checked with her to see how the effort is going.
She said the ER wasn’t testing pregnant women because when patients come in for emergency care, their needs are urgent, and screening isn’t something emergency departments are used to doing or thinking about.
“I think if CDC comes out and says that it’s not the sole responsibility of ob-gyns and the whole health care system should have the responsibility of assisting them at their point of contact, which may just be once, if at all, before they deliver,” Sankaran said. “I think that would be a huge ste