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  • September 26, 2018
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Syphilis in babies is at a 20-year high — prenatal testing could stem the tide

The disease can threaten a child’s lifelong development

The number of babies born with syphilis has reached a 20-year high in the United States — more than doubling in the last four years.

The figures, contained in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are concerning because congenital syphilis can threaten a child’s lifelong development.

All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis at their first prenatal appointment, the CDC said.

Inadequate prenatal testing and a lack of awareness about sexually transmitted diseases are identified as primary causes of the jump.

The organisation says it is increasing support for prevention and treatment in states with a high burden of syphilis, and partnering with community groups to spread awareness among pregnant mothers.

Over 900 cases of babies born with syphilis were reported in 2017, in 37 states. The disease is passed on by pregnant mothers who suffer from it.

Treatment for pregnant women is straightforward when the disease is identified. But when left untreated, there is an up to 80% chance of transmission to the newborn child.

“When passed to a baby, syphilis can result in miscarriage, newborn death and severe lifelong physical and mental health problems,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

“No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment.”

As well as testing at their first prenatal appointment, women at high risk should also be tested again later in pregnancy and at birth.

The CDC has directed $4 million of funding to improve diagnosis and prevention in nine project areas which accounted for 70% of congenital syphilis cases in 2016, primarily in the country’s west and south.

Data released in August also showed a 30% increase in STD cases among adults since 2013, to a record 2.3 million. Syphilis diagnoses increased by 76% over the period.

The increase is due to lack of STD awareness and education, insufficient testing by medical professionals and significant cuts in government funding over the last 20 years, according to David C. Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors.

“The United States continues to have the highest STD rates in the industrialised world,” Harvey said. “We are in the midst of an absolute STD public health crisis in this country.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: US Air Force/Staff Sergeant Rachel Martinez)

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