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Newborn syphilis cases in U.S. reach 20 year high

CBS News

The number of newborn babies born with syphilis has increased dramatically over the past few years. New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that reported cases of congenital syphilis, in which the disease is passed from mother to her baby during pregnancy or delivery, have more than doubled since 2013.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to serious complications if not treated. It can be cured with the right round of antibiotics. An untreated infection passed from mother to baby can cause devastating health effects for the newborn.

"When passed to a baby, syphilis can result in miscarriage, newborn death, and severe lifelong physical and mental health problems," Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said in a statement "No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment."

According to the CDC, up to 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection as a newborn.

Other health impacts for baby include deformed bones, severe anemia, an enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), meningitis, brain and nerve problems, blindness or deafness, and skin rashes.

The report found that reported cases of congenital syphilis jumped from 362 in 2013 to 918 in 2017, the highest number of recorded cases in 20 years. Researchers collected information on syphilis cases in 37 states.

The researchers note that the surge in cases parallels similar increases in syphilis among women of reproductive age, and outpaces national increases in sexually transmitted infections overall.

In order to reduce the number of babies born with syphilis, health officials say it's vital that pregnant women be tested for the disease. Without early and regular prenatal care, a pregnant woman may not know that she has syphilis and may unknowingly put her baby is at risk.

If a pregnant woman is left untreated, there is up to an 80 percent chance that she will pass it on to her baby.

"To protect every baby, we have to start by protecting every mother," said Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC's Division of STD Prevention. "Early testing and prompt treatment to cure any infections are critical first steps, but too many women are falling through the cracks of the system. If we're going to reverse the resurgence of congenital syphilis that has to change."

CDC research has shown that one in three women who gave birth to a baby with syphilis in 2016 did get tested during pregnancy.  However, the women either acquired syphilis after that test or did not get treated in time to cure the infection in the unborn baby to prevent negative health effects.

Officials recommend pregnant women at high risk for syphilis or who live in high-prevalence areas should be tested at the first prenatal visit, again early in the third trimester, and then once more at delivery.

To reduce the risk of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections, experts say individuals can commit to a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis, and use condoms the right way every time they have sex.

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