32 infants in Arizona lost their lives to a “rapidly accelerating epidemic” of syphilis in the United States last year; in light of the growing number of cases, local and federal health officials are urging increased testing and awareness.
The frequency of potentially fatal instances of syphilis among newborn U.S. newborns has climbed more than tenfold between 2012 and 2022, according to newly revealed preliminary statistics, which alarmed officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.
Dr. Debra Houry, the chief medical officer of the CDC, told reporters, “This is an outcome of increasing syphilis cases in the United States and the missed opportunities to test and treat mothers for syphilis during pregnancy.” “Newborn syphilis cases have increased to alarming proportions. The CDC is pleading with communities, public health institutions, and healthcare professionals to intensify their efforts in combating infant syphilis.”
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Arizona is where the issue is most severe. According to state data, the number of newborns born with syphilis increased by over thirteen times over a seven-year period, from 17 in 2016 to 219 last year.
According to CDC data from 2021, Arizona has the highest neonatal syphilis prevalence in the country.
Early in 2024, state-by-state rankings of neonatal syphilis rates together with CDC statistics specific to 2022 are anticipated. The Arizona Department of Health Services’ preliminary state data, however, presents a dismal picture of worsening syphilis rates between 2021 and 2022. During that time, the number of newborn syphilis cases increased from 182 to 219, and the number of babies who passed away from the disease more than doubled, from 14 to 32.
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There is a germ called syphilis that can infect unborn children through the placenta. Congenital syphilis is the term used to describe cases that are transferred to fetuses during pregnancy. Antibiotics work well to cure syphilis when it is detected early enough. It is crucial to get checked for this reason, particularly if you are pregnant.
Congenital syphilis rates are “very high,” and when state-specific data for 2022 are released, Arizona is expected to rank highest for its range of congenital syphilis cases, according to Dr. Melanie Taylor, an infectious disease specialist and medical epidemiologist with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
About half of Arizona’s congenital syphilis deaths occur in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county, with infants of color being disproportionately afflicted, according to Taylor.
According to state data, American Indians or Alaska Natives made up almost 30%, or 10 out of the 32 babies in Arizona that died from congenital syphilis, and slightly over one-third were Hispanic.
“The issue is really access and uptake of prenatal care for the purposes of congenital syphilis prevention,” Taylor stated. Other behavioral risk factors for substance abuse and use include insecure housing, fears of retaliation against someone taking drugs while pregnant, and reasons why some people may choose not to seek treatment.
Babies may experience severe health implications from syphilis even if they do not die from it, such as bone damage, severe anemia, jaundice, skin rashes, meningitis, blindness, and hearing loss. In order to treat the infection, they will probably spend the first ten days of their existence in the hospital. The statistics on congenital syphilis do not account for miscarriages that might result from syphilis.
According to the new CDC figures, more than 3,700 kids were born in the United States in 2022 with syphilis. According to the CDC, the rise in neonatal syphilis is a result of declining preventive infrastructure and resources, increased syphilis cases among women of reproductive age, and social and economic issues that obstruct access to high-quality prenatal care.
The most recent congenital syphilis study from the CDC discovered that:
With prompt testing and treatment during pregnancy, nearly 90% of infant syphilis cases in 2022 may have been avoided.
More than half of instances of neonatal syphilis in 2022 were among pregnant women who tested positive for the disease but did not receive prompt or appropriate treatment.
Mothers who did not receive prenatal care accounted for nearly 40% of cases of infant syphilis.
The next step in reducing the number of cases of syphilis, according to federal and Arizona health officials, is to reach out to more pregnant women and people who are of childbearing age outside of STD clinics. This can be done by connecting with them wherever they are, whether that be through community health workers, drug rehab centers, or emergency rooms.
Through our ob/gyn partners, we have discovered that 100% of the moms who visit their clinics are screened. But none of our efforts will reach that patient if more than half of the sickened women with syphilis never seek prenatal care, according to Taylor. “So where we are working now is to try and seek places where pregnant women seek care for non-pregnancy-related concerns.”
According to CDC authorities, systemic hurdles to receiving prenatal care include systemic racism and restricted access to health care, while individual barriers to accessing prenatal care may include substance use disorders and a lack of insurance.
According to CDC data, kids born to black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, or other minority moms had an eight-fold higher risk of having newborn syphilis in 2021 compared to babies born to white mothers, even if the overall number of cases of neonatal syphilis is rising. According to federal officials, the discrepancies are caused by deeply ingrained social determinants of health, or the places where people age, live, work, learn, and play. These variables obstruct access to high-quality healthcare.