Syphilis Rates Among Pregnant Women Have Tripled, CDC Data Shows

By   |  February 13, 2024

By Robin Foster HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

TUESDAY, Feb. 13, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Maternal syphilis rates have tripled in recent years, putting thousands of newborns at risk for infection, a new U.S. government report shows.

Left untreated, syphilis can damage the heart and brain and cause blindness, deafness and paralysis. When transmitted during pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage, lifelong medical issues and infant death.

In the new report, published Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the data showed that more than 10,000 women who gave birth in 2022 had syphilis, up from about 3,400 cases in 2016.   

Not surprisingly, an alarming spike in syphilis cases among newborns has accompanied that surge in maternal syphilis. For these infants, syphilis can be a severe, disabling and sometimes life-threatening infection.

Another recent CDC report showed that nearly 3,800 babies were born with congenital syphilis in 2022. Between 2012 and 2021, cases rose 755%, the report says. 

The surge in congenital syphilis is a “direct result of untested and untreated mothers,” Dr. Irene Stafford, a maternal-fetal medicine physician with UTHealth Houston, told CNN. The disease “is particularly pathogenic, it’s particularly infectious to the fetus, and rates are skyrocketing.”

The vast majority of congenital syphilis cases might have been prevented with better testing and treatment, the CDC report said. 

However, experts say that access to testing and treatment is lacking.

“The overwhelming majority of pregnant patients these days are just not getting tested. And even if they do get tested, they’re not necessarily getting treated in a timely fashion,” Stafford said.

Limited clinic hours can make it tough for pregnant women to get care, and rapid tests are often passed over in favor of more sophisticated tests that can take days for results and require a follow-up visit, she noted.

Maternal syphilis rates were highest among mothers under 25. And race and ethnicity played a part: The rate among American Indian women who gave birth was five times higher than average, and rates among Black and Native Hawaiian women were more than double the national average.

The surge was also spread widely across the country: 40 states saw maternal syphilis rates more than double between 2016 and 2022. South Dakota was one of six states where the case rate has risen more than 400%, while Maine was one of three states that saw no significant increase in that period, CNN reported.

Recently, the Biden administration announced that it had established a federal task force to tackle the problem.

“The syphilis crisis in our country is unacceptable. The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to addressing this urgent issue and using all available means to eliminate disparities in our health care system,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in an agency news release announcing the creation of the task force. “These actions we are taking will help ensure we are improving outcomes for birthing parents and newborns. We must prevent more deaths caused by congenital syphilis, an entirely preventable disease.”

The Biden administration also decided to temporarily allow imports of an alternate syphilis medication amid an ongoing shortage of the front-line treatment for infection. Experts fear that won't be enough. 

“There’s a huge challenge before us, and there are some hopeful signs of some action,” David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, told CNN. “The bad news is that we have no indication that there are any new resources or funding being brought to the table. And no new resources means that, at the end of the day, we’re not going to succeed in bringing these rates down.”

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on syphilis.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics data brief, "Trends and Characteristics in Maternal Syphilis Rates During Pregnancy: United States, 2016–2022," Feb. 13, 2024; CNN, Feb. 13, 2024