Virginia, along with many other states, is seeing an alarming increase in congenital syphilis (CS) cases. The Virginia Department of Health reported that the number of CS cases in 2021 was the highest in more than three decades.
Director of sexually transmitted disease prevention and surveillance for the Virginia Department of Health, Ms. Oana Vasiliu, in a letter to colleagues said that syphilis rates among women in Virginia of reproductive age have increased and are driving the increase in cases among newborns, with a record high of 20 CS cases in infants reported in 2022.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is normally transmitted through sores on the skin. However, pregnant women can pass the infection to their fetuses. When a baby becomes infected before birth, this is known as CS.
“The national congenital syphilis rate of 57.3 cases per 100,000 live births in 2020 represents a 15% increase relative to 2019 and 254% increase relative to 2016,” the CDC report stated.
Before birth, CS can cause miscarriage, stillbirths, premature birth, or death shortly after birth. After birth, CS can cause deformed bones, severe anemia, enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, brain and nerve problems like blindness or deafness, Meningitis, and skin rashes.
If left untreated, the infection progresses through a series of stages. It can lie dormant in the body for years or even decades, doing even more harm in later stages, sometimes attacking the brain, nerves, eyes, and other organs.
Other states including Texas and Mississippi have also seen alarming increases in CS. Mississippi saw a nine times increase in CS in the past six years.
“Mississippi is experiencing a frightening increase in pregnant women with syphilis and in turn, babies born with syphilis,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, dean of the John D. Bower School of Population Health at the University of Mississippi Medical Center said in a February news report. “This is a devastating condition that leads to miscarriage, stillbirth, or death about 40 percent of the time if the mother contracts syphilis during pregnancy, depending on the stage of maternal illness.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report also found that CS rates mirror the rates of syphilis in reproductive-aged women.
In 2012, close to 310 babies were born infected with the disease. In the most current 2021 data, that number increased nearly 7-fold, to at least 2,268, according to preliminary estimates.
The CDC’s report found that 166, or 7 percent, of babies diagnosed with syphilis in recent years have died; many others have faced severe health problems that include brain and bone malformations, blindness, and organ damage.
The infant may not show any signs of infection after birth. But the infection, left untreated, can be fatal. Health officials recommend that pregnant women get tested for Syphilis early in their pregnancy.
“To combat this public health crisis, our priority must be to engage moms early in pregnancy and ensure testing and treatment. This will require a committed partnership between physicians and clinics, public health, and insurers, primarily Medicaid,” Dobbs said.