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Syphilis screening could prevent 500,000 children's deaths: Study

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Pregnant women with syphilis can pass the disease to their baby istockphoto

(CBS) How can half a million children's lives be saved? A new study says screening moms-to-be for syphilis - a major cause of stillbirth and newborn death - is the answer.

But not enough moms in developing countries are getting the blood test, which costs less than $1.50.

"Screening is extremely effective at bringing down death rates and illness rates, but unfortunately the majority of pregnant women in the world are still not screened for syphilis," study author Dr. Sarah Hawkes, global health professor at the University College London, told Reuters.

For the study - published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases - researchers from the University College London analyzed data from 10 studies involving 41,000 women. They found screening moms with the cheap blood test resulted in 54 percent fewer stillbirths and miscarriages.

Over 2 million pregnant women worldwide are infected with syphilis each year - mostly in Africa - and some don't even realize it. That's why more than half of them transmit syphilis to their baby, resulting in stillbirth or premature birth, or complications like a low birth weight. Children born with syphilis who aren't treated immediately may develop seizures or die within weeks.

The authors think if health officials invest more money in a global screening effort, they can prevent these needless deaths.

"We can so easily stop this," Peter Piot, director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told Reuters. "Syphilis is invisible: if you don't test for it you don't find it."

The World Health Organization has more on congenital syphilis.

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