In a startling revelation in the health community, cases of syphilis among newborns has risen at dramatic and alarming numbers, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the CDC, recent numbers show that more than 3,700 babies in the U.S. were born with syphilis in 2022, a number that is more than 10 times higher than the total number cases in 2012.
The sexually transmitted infection is known to cause a number of devastating lifelong medical conditions, as well as other tragic outcomes like miscarriage, infant death and stillbirth.
CDC officials say the increase in infant infections follows along the same path as the rising number of syphilis cases among women of reproductive age, particularly those with social and economic factors that act as barriers for quality health care.
“The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” said CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Debra Houry. “New actions are needed to prevent more family tragedies. We’re calling on health care providers, public health systems, and communities to take additional steps to connect mothers and babies with the care they need.”
Among the key findings from the CDC analysis, the vast majority, nearly 90%, of all newborn syphilis cases may have been prevented with timely testing and treatment during pregnancy.
What’s more, more than half of those who tested positive for syphilis while pregnant did not receive adequate treatment, and nearly 40% received no prenatal care at all.
The CDC says it’s time to “sound the alarm” over the increase of syphilis cases, which it says is part of a “rapidly accelerating epidemic of sexually transmitted infections in the United States.”
Treatment and prevention of the potentially deadly infection can be difficult for many Americans who do not have the same access to quality health care, the CDC says.
One of the biggest factors for syphilis infection is where a person lives, as well as individual factors like lack of insurance or substance abuse issues, or system-level issues, including systemic racism and limited health care access.
Minority groups and persons of color make up the vast majority of these newborn syphilis cases, which the CDC says can likely be attributed to decades-long disparity of the quality of health care between white mothers and mothers from other racial and ethnic groups.
“While newborn syphilis cases are increasing overall, babies born to Black, Hispanic, or American Indian/Alaska Native mothers were up to 8 times more likely to have newborn syphilis in 2021 than babies born to White mothers,” the CDC said in a release.
Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, called the newborn syphilis epidemic an “unacceptable American crisis.”
“All pregnant mothers—regardless of who they are or where they live—deserve access to care that protects them and their babies from preventable disease,” Mermin said. “Our nation should be proactive and think beyond the OB/GYN’s office and bridge prevention gaps.”
He added that every encounter between pregnant mothers and health care providers is an opportunity to prevent congenital syphilis.
For additional information about syphilis, including signs of symptoms and treatment options, click here.