More Babies Born With Congenital Syphilis in 2020, Study Reveals

Photo: (Photo : FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

According to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infants born with congenital syphilis increased at such an alarming rate in 2020 despite active ways to prevent the infection.

Almost 2,100 babies in the United States were born with syphilis during the pandemic year, a five-fold increase since the reported cases in 2012. The CDC stated that only 29 states had babies with congenital syphilis in the last decade. Today, however, 47 states, including the District of Columbia, have at least one baby with congenital syphilis each year, reflecting a looming syphilis epidemic.

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Breaking Down the Numbers

Lead author Virginia Bowen told the New England Journal of Medicine that the latest number is the highest in 25 years and is attributed to the rising number of sexually transmitted infections and drug use among adults.

The CDC cited that more than 100,000 cases of syphilis were logged for 2020, with a small percentage of babies with congenital syphilis. Of the over 2,000 cases among infants, 139 were stillbirths or infant deaths.

In Los Angeles, babies with the sexually transmitted infection in the womb surged to 113 in 2020 compared to only six cases nine years ago. The state's Department of Public Health said that cases have been rising even before the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 crisis has worsened the problem since fewer people are getting a screening for sexually transmitted infections.

An L.A. mom with STD, whose baby was stillborn, admitted that she didn't seek medical treatments despite developing painful sores for fear of being arrested for drug use. She belongs to the emerging demographic of women of reproductive age who have become vulnerable to the infection. According to the CDC, this demographic has had a 300 percent rise since 2012.

Urging Action to Prevent Infant Deaths

For years, health experts have urged action against this preventable infection since congenital syphilis in babies may be cured with antibiotics if the mother's infection is detected and caught in time. Mothers usually pass the infection to the baby in the womb, leading to devastating consequences, such as a miscarriage, low birth weight, premature birth, or stillbirth. Babies who survive the infection may develop body deformities, loss of hearing, or blindness.

The CDC said that pregnant moms at risk of sexually transmitted diseases should be screened during their first prenatal visits and in the third trimester as a preventive measure. However, in most cases, moms, especially in vulnerable communities, skip prenatal care most likely because they don't know how to discuss their condition with healthcare experts. Bowen said that pregnant moms should not fear asking direct questions, especially about prevention and testing, since healthcare workers are trained to handle such sensitive cases.

Meanwhile, the health agency also recommended improvements in the public health policy of each state. Lawmakers must start to familiarize themselves with the data and address the barriers that make access to testing, treatment, and preventive care easier for their constituents.

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