What Year Is It Again? There’s an Increase in Black and Latinx Babies With Congenital Syphilis

By Ayana Byrd Jun 09, 2020

Mirroring a rise in cases of syphilis among adults, the number of babies born with the bacterial infection has gone up significantly in the United States, particularly among Black and Latinx populations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week (June 4 ) that there has been an increase of 261 percent between 2013 and 2018 for congenital syphilis, which occurs when a fetus or infant acquires the sexually transmitted infection (STI) in utero.

Congenital syphilis can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, early infant death and lifelong neurological problems. In order to diagnose and treat it, the CDC recommends pregnant people get screened at their first prenatal visit, and, for high-risk groups, also at 28 weeks and delivery. Penicillin can treat the adult condition and “infant infection can be avoided if an antibiotic regimen is started at least 30 days before delivery,” according to Rewire.News.

Considering there is a protocol to keep the STI from being transmitted, the spike in cases with babies, writes Rewire.news, “represents a massive failure of prevention and prenatal care in the United States, reflecting racial and geographic health-care disparities across the country.” It continues:

And like most STIs, congenital syphilis disproportionately affects communities of color—39 percent of infants with the infection were born to non-Hispanic Black women; 32 percent to Hispanic women; and 22 percent to non-Hispanic white women, according to the CDC.

The CDC study was undertaken to determine why there has been a rise in failure to detect or treat pregnant people. It found four overwhelming reasons: 

1) lack of timely prenatal care with no timely syphilis testing
rn2) lack of timely syphilis testing despite timely prenatal care
rn3) lack of adequate maternal treatment despite a timely syphilis diagnosis
rn4) late identification of seroconversion during pregnancy (identified as less than 30 days before delivery).

The report stresses that the number of cases can be reduced with a shift in medical practices, saying, “Congenital syphilis prevention strategies that implement tailored public health and health care interventions to address missed opportunities can have substantial public health impact.”

Dr. Christopher Hall, clinical advisory chair for the National Coalition of STD Directors, said this reality “serves as a prism for health inequities” in the United States.