The rate of syphilis is surging in the United States — and it’s hurting moms and babies. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new report about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that show that the rate of infants born with congenital syphilis have skyrocketed a staggering 235% in just four years.
Congenital syphilis occurs when a woman with syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy.
"Rates of [primary and secondary] syphilis increased 24% among reproductive-age women from 2019 to 2020, resulting in increases in congenital syphilis," the report reads. "In 2020, there were 2,148 congenital syphilis cases, an increase of 15% since 2019."
The good news is that both syphilis and congenital syphilis are simple bacterial infections that are preventable and easily treatable with antibiotics. The very bad news is that if syphilis isn’t found and treated, it can have extremely serious health outcomes, including death.
Some babies who get syphilis in the womb are stillborn or die shortly after birth. The ones who survive can face a life of complications, which can include bone damage, organ damage, nerve damage, seeing and hearing issues, and mental health issues.
Moms who live with untreated syphilis also have a stark prognosis that include the same physical and mental health issues — and that can lead to death.
The CDC wrote in the report that congenital syphilis is most likely to occur when moms don’t get prenatal care and don’t get tested for syphilis, which can happen when paired with drug use and addiction (a totally different epidemic we have).
"Among syphilis cases in women, we're seeing increases in the percentage of cases reporting behaviors that put them at increased risk of syphilis, such as injection drug use, meth use, and having sex with partners who inject drugs," CDC STD prevention division director Dr. Leandro Mena told Insider.
Other issues, like the housing crisis, lack of access to health care, and inequality in prenatal care, are affecting the numbers, too.
“The COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of a reality we’ve long known about STDs. Social and economic factors — such as poverty and health insurance status — create barriers, increase health risks, and often result in worse health outcomes for some people,” Mena wrote in the report. “If we are to make lasting progress against STDs in this country, we have to understand the systems that create inequities and work with partners to change them. No one can be left behind.”
Really, all of the STD news was not great — and it’s because of the reasons Mena mentions above. Except for a dip in STDs that took place at the beginning of the pandemic (when people were just staying in and avoiding new partners, and when fewer people were going to the doctor for screenings), the country is in the middle of a 20-year high for sexually transmitted infections. Gonorrhea cases are up 45% since 2016 and regular old adult cases of syphilis are up 52% from 2016.
Syphilis spreads through skin-to-skin contact with infected sores, most commonly through sexual contact. It might be easier to get tested for STDs than you think — it’s covered by most health insurance and Medicaid, and many health clinics like Planned Parenthood offer testing for free or on a sliding scale.