What's Behind The Syphilis Spike In Newborns

Medical professionals in California are dealing with something pretty much unprecedented: a spike in syphilis rates in newborns. Congenital syphilis means that the mothers have undiagnosed syphilis and have passed it onto their babies. The infants are born anemic, with fluid filled lungs, and rashes. If they don't die immediately, they die within a few weeks. If the newborn survives, they have chronic health conditions for the rest of their lives.

The mothers often haven't received any prenatal care, let alone primary care, since they're usually all from lower income areas in California. Gurvir Khurana, who works at four hospitals in Central Valley, California, told CNN, "It's been an absolute explosion. it's just spreading very, very quickly. Kern County has a huge public health problem on its hands."

This hasn't come out out of nowhere. STI rates have been on the rise since 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Syphilis rates in woman have increased 27 percent from 2014 to 2015 and the CDC predicts that that will continue for 2016 — a lot, too. The agency predicts that syphilis will increase among women an additional 21 percent and that congenital syphilis will rise 4 percent. What's most frustrating is that syphilis was pretty much wiped out in North America and now there's the beginning of what could turn into an epidemic. But this can all be prevented.

A 2016 report from the CDC blames the lack of access to healthcare and STI testing for the rise in syphilis. With the new administration's plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even more Americans will be left without access to healthcare. Worse, about half of state STI programs budgets have been cut and 20 health department STI clinics closed in one year. It will likely get tighter with new policies.

Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said in a statement late last year, "STD prevention resources across the nation are stretched thin, and we’re beginning to see people slip through the public health safety net.

He added, "Turning the STD epidemics around requires bolstering prevention efforts and addressing new challenges — but the payoff is substantial in terms of improving health, reducing disparities and saving billions of dollars." Think about it. The infants born with congenital syphilis that survive have health problems — pre-existing conditions — their entire lives and need healthcare.

The spike in STI rates is also tied to conservative efforts to defund Planned Parenthoods, which provides not just STI testing for women but also prenatal care (to catch syphilis before it's passed to a fetus), and states' efforts to restrict access to sex education. The more people know about how to prevent STIs — that they can get tested for them easily, and that they're treatable (in most cases, cheaply) — the better. In the long run, it doesn't just save lives, it's actually more cost effective.