The big return of Syphilis


One of the nation’s almost eradicated diseases is killing newborns in very high numbers. Throughout the nation, 1,306 infants gained syphilis from their mother in 2018, a 40% rise over 2017, according to federal data released Tuesday. 78% of those babies were stillborn, and 16% died after birth.

In California, cases of congenital syphilis – the term used when a mother passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy – continued an acute seven-year climb, to 332 cases, a whopping 18.1% increase from 2017. Texas, Nevada, Louisiana and Arizona were the only states that had congenital syphilis rates higher than California’s. Those five states together made up nearly two-thirds of total cases, although all but 17 states saw increases in their congenital syphilis rates. The state-by-state numbers were released as an extension of a broader report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking trends in sexually transmitted diseases. Cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia combined reached an all-time high in 2018. Cases of the ultimate infectious stage of syphilis rose 14% to more than 35,000 cases; gonorrhea increased 5% to more than 580,000 cases; and chlamydia increased 3% to more than 1.7 million cases. For experienced public health workers, the upward trend in congenital syphilis numbers is specifically disturbing because the condition is so easy to prevent. Blood tests can identify infection in pregnant women. The treatment is comparatively simple and effective. When caught during pregnancy, transmission from mother to baby normally can be curbed. It takes a few shots of antibiotics to prevent a baby from getting syphilis from its mother. Left untreated, Treponema pallidum, the corkscrew-shaped organism that is the cause of syphilis, can wiggle its way through a mother’s placenta and into a fetus. Once there, it can multiply furiously, infecting every part of the body.

San Joaquin County health officials replanted the department and appealed for grants to increase the number of investigators available as congenital syphilis spiked, said Hemal Parikh, county coordinator for STD control. Even after the new hires and the reduced focus on women of childbearing age with syphilis, an investigator can have 20 to 30 open cases at an instant. In other counties, the caseload can be double that.