The number of babies born with syphilis has more than doubled in the past four years and last year reached a 20-year high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Syphilis may be passed from a pregnant mother to her unborn baby through the placenta. The infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, and infants born with it may suffer a wide variety of serious health problems, including deformities, seizures, anemia and jaundice.
Congenital syphilis can be treated with penicillin, but the damage caused by the disease can last a lifetime.
Elimination of syphilis had almost been achieved by 2000, said Dr. Gail Bolan, director of S.T.D. prevention at the C.D.C. “There was support from Congress — they even argued that our work in S.T.D.s would prepare us for bioterrorism,” she said.
“Cost analysis showed that billions would be saved by investing in elimination, and we had a much more robust public health system at that time,” she continued. “We really got syphilis down to a low level.”
But, the new report said, “progress has since been unraveled.”
There were 101,567 cases of syphilis reported in 2017. Of these, 30,644 were primary and secondary cases — the earliest and most infectious stages of the disease.
This represents a 10.5 percent over the rate in 2016, and a 72.7 percent increase since 2013. The number of syphilis cases has increased every year since 2013.
Along with this, the number of cases of congenital syphilis has also steadily increased, to 918 cases in 2017 from 362 in 2013, a national rate of 23.3 per 100,000 live births in 2017.
The highest rate of congenital disease was found in Louisiana, with 93.4 cases per 100,000 births. Rates were also high in Nevada, California, Texas and Florida.
The C.D.C. recommends that all pregnant women be screened for syphilis during the first prenatal visit, with additional testing at the start of the third trimester for women at increased risk or who live in a community with high syphilis prevalence.
Treatment with penicillin is inexpensive and effective, but Dr. Bolan said that about 34 percent of women who give birth to babies with syphilis have had no prenatal care at all.
“Congenital syphilis is a needless tragedy,” she said. “It is going to take all sectors of our society to help if we’re going to be able to reverse these trends — the health care and public health sectors, communities, decision makers, researchers and industry.”