A new report from the CDC has alarming news about the rate of newborn babies born with syphilis in the U.S.: It’s more than doubled in the last several years, from a reported 362 cases in 2013 to 918 cases in 2017. Babies can contract the infection from their pregnant mothers in utero, leading to a host of potentially serious health problems, including death.
Syphilisis a sexually transmitted infection that can be successfully and easily treated with inexpensive antibiotics but can cause serious health problems when left untreated. The same person can get syphilis more than once, and a person can be infected with syphilis and have no outward symptoms. Those can include sores on the genitals, mouth, or anus, as well as fever, rash, and swollen lymph nodes. More severe symptoms—including problems with the brain, nervous system, cardiac system, and blood vessels—may appear as long as 30 years after initial infection.
In babies, congenital syphilis can lead to low birth weight, early delivery, and stillbirth. The CDC estimates that up to 40 percent of babies born to infected women may either be stillborn or die shortly after birth due to the infection. An infant can be born with syphilis and show no symptoms, but may develop serious conditions including deformed bones, deafness, blindness, anemia, jaundice, and other complications.
While the absolute number of syphilis cases in newborn babies is still small, the increase is reflective of a larger and disturbing trend. The overall incidence of many STDs, including syphilis, has been rising in the U.S., reversing many years of decline. Indeed, between 2015 and 2016 alone, the rate of syphilis among women grew by 36 percent, according to the CDC.
What women can do
The new CDC report—combined with the rapid rise in syphilis rates in general—underscores the need for pregnant women to be tested for syphilis, along with other STDs, early in their pregnancy (at the first prenatal visit) so that they can be detected and treated. Pregnant women who are at increased risk of syphilis should also be retested at 28 weeks’ gestation and at delivery. Pregnant women at increased risk include those who receive less or late prenatal care, have new or multiple sexual partners, suspect that a recent partner may not have been monogamous, are sex workers, have HIV, or live in an area with higher rates of syphilis. (You can look up syphilis rates by state, city, and county at this CDC web page.) In general, the CDC recommends that pregnant women speak to their physicians about their risk of infection and whether and at what points they should be tested during their pregnancy.
If a pregnant woman tests positive for syphilis, she should be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible. Newborns with syphilis also require immediate antibiotic treatment, which may require a longer hospital stay and will necessitate follow-up monitoring.
A sexually active pregnant woman’s best protection against syphilis is to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has tested negative for syphilis. The proper use of latex condoms can also reduce risk, though a condom may not prevent contact with every syphilis sore.
Also see STDs Continue to Rise in U.S.