Startling Rise in Babies Born With Syphilis

Mar 1, 2017 at 2:08 p.m. ET
Image: Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images

Thanks to a spike in sexually transmitted infection rates among women of reproductive age, there has been an alarming increase in rates of syphilis among newborn babies. Here’s what you need to know about this worrying public health trend:

STIs are at an all-time high in the U.S.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of syphilis increased by 27 percent from 2014 to 2015, while congenital syphilis increased by 6 percent. Preliminary data for 2016 shows a continuation of this trend, with a 21 percent rise in syphilis among women and a 4 percent increase in congenital syphilis.

This is especially problematic given the fact that syphilis had almost disappeared by 2000, the CDC’s Gail Bolan told CNN.

More: 5 STIs That Can Threaten Your Fertility

Syphilis frequently goes undiagnosed

The fact that many women arrive at the hospital to deliver their baby without ever having prenatal care or even knowing that they have syphilis — or that they could pass it on to their newborn child — has only added to the extent of this public health crisis. This is particularly true in areas like the Central Valley in California, which is primarily agricultural and low-income, providing limited access to reproductive or general health care.

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If Trump gets his way, this will get much worse

I think we can all agree that this increase in STI and congenital syphilis rates is problematic. But keep in mind that these increases have been with existing access to reproductive and health care via the Affordable Care Act and organizations like Planned Parenthood. If the president and his party get their way and services and prevention programs are cut, this public health disaster will get much, much worse.

Testing, education and awareness works

Louisiana currently has the highest rate of congenital syphilis in the country — but it’s actually declining. Public health officials stepped up efforts to combat this problem four years ago, partnering with the CDC to expand testing sites, raise public awareness, provide education to OB-GYNs on treating patients with STIs and passing legislation requiring syphilis testing twice during pregnancy. And it’s working — congenital syphilis rates are now on the decline in Louisiana.

More: 5 Ways to Keep Your Vagina Healthy

The rise in STIs is a result of inadequate prenatal & sexual health care

We’re already seeing the effects of budget cuts in state and local STI prevention programs and access to prenatal care. This is coupled with changes in sexual behavior, including reduced condom usage and increases in the number of partners. Because many STIs don’t have visible symptoms, they frequently go undiagnosed until the infection is in its later — and more destructive — stages.

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