The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a concerning report on Tuesday stating that syphilis rates in newborns have doubled since 2013, according to USA Today. Given the spike in numbers, it's reasonable parents want to know how to best protect themselves and their families amid this epidemic.
Congenital syphilis rates have been on the rise for years, spiking in areas like Southern California, Florida, and Texas. California reported 206 cases in 2016, while Texas clocked in with 79, and Florida rounded out the top three states with 51 incidents, the Alameda County Public Health Department reported.
Unfortunately, it looks like this problem continues to grow. The number of babies born with syphilis jumped from 362 cases in 2013 to 918 in 2017, a statistic that marked a 20-year high, according to the Daily Mail. Five states accounted for 70 percent of the cases: California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana, according to a map provided by the CDC, while 37 states reported at least one case of congenital syphilis in 2017.
Congenital syphilis, a life-threatening infection passed from a parent to child in birth or during fetal development, poses numerous health risks to newborns. Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, explained in the CDC's press release:
When passed to a baby, syphilis can result in miscarriage, newborn death, and severe lifelong physical and mental health problems. No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment.
The condition can cause a variety of troubling symptoms at birth, including, according to the CDC:
- Deformed bones,
- Severe anemia (low blood count),
- Enlarged liver and spleen,
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes),
- Brain and nerve problems, like blindness or deafness,
- Meningitis, and
- Skin rashes.
Although congenital syphilis is understandably a worrisome issue for parents, it's important to note this condition is preventable.
The first step is to get screened for syphilis, so make sure to visit your doctor during the first trimester of your pregnancy if you have any concerns. And if you don't have access to a doctor, try visiting your local Planned Parenthood to see if you qualify for free STD testing, or if you can get tested at a reduced cost.
Once a parent confirms their syphilis diagnosis, a doctor will likely prescribe Penicillin. "Penicillin G is the only known effective antimicrobial for preventing maternal transmission to the fetus and treating fetal infection," the CDC states on its website.
The CDC also plans to take action to fight this epidemic, listing the following measures on its website:
- Work to improve CS data through an enhanced CS surveillance system to capture stillbirths, infant morbidity, and cases prevented.
- Investigate all CS cases in states to identify missed opportunities and improve services.
- Develop tools and evaluate high-impact prevention services, such as syphilis screening; timely treatment; partner services; and linkage to contraceptive counseling, behavioral health, and pregnancy case management programs.
- Develop CS prevention guidelines for health care providers and health departments.
- Identify and share best practices, such as infant morbidity review boards, assessment approaches to identify missed opportunities, and implementation of system level changes.
- Support health care providers to implement recommended syphilis screening and treatment of pregnant women and women of reproductive age through training, guidelines, tools, and resources.
Of course, it's worth noting that the Republican party's mission to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA) isn't helping these efforts. If Planned Parenthood is defunded, as President Donald Trump and others aspire to accomplish, countless expecting parents would be without prenatal care. And when people don't have access to prenatal care, it's likely reported cases of congenital syphilis will rise.
If you're concerned about the CDC's report, don't hesitate to reach out to a trusted medical professional. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power.