Surging cases of newborn syphilis, which can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth, have reached “dire levels”, according to US health officials.
The CDC says that more than 3,700 cases of congenital syphilis were reported in 2022, around 11 times the number recorded a decade ago.
Those infants who survive may become blind, deaf or have severe developmental delays. The CDC says that in 2022 the disease caused 231 stillbirths and 51 infant deaths.
The federal agency says that 90 per cent of new cases could have been prevented with testing and treatment.
“Syphilis in babies continues to increase, and the situation is dire,” said Dr Laura Bachmann, chief medical officer at the agency’s division for prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. “We need to do things differently.”
She added: “One case is an indication of a breakdown in the public health infrastructure, and now we have 3,700 cases.”
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria that can remain in the body for years, which if not treated can become active again later. Mothers can pass the infection on to their children during pregnancy.
“The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” added CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry. “New actions are needed to prevent more family tragedies. We’re calling on healthcare providers, public health systems, and communities to take additional steps to connect mothers and babies with the care they need.”
The National Coalition of STD Directors has called the increase in congenital syphilis “a shameful crisis’ and on Tuesday demanded $1bn in federal funding and a White House syphilis response coordinator.
The CDC says that 38 per cent of the 3,700 babies were born to mothers who had received no prenatal care, while of the women who had at least one prenatal doctor’s appointment, 30 per cent were never tested for the disease or tested too late.
Among those women who tested positive for syphilis, 88 per cent received no treatment, inadequate treatment or undocumented treatment.
CDC data showed that babies born to Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native mothers in 2021 were eight times more likely to have congenital syphilis than babies with white mothers.
“It is unbelievable how this could all be prevented if we just had patients get in for screening and treatment,” Dr Irene Stafford, a maternal-fetal medicine physician with UTHealth Houston told NBC News.
The CDC recommends screening for syphilis at the first prenatal visit or as soon as pregnancy is identified. For women at high risk of infection, the CDC suggest screening at 28 weeks and also at delivery.