The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the number of babies born with syphilis in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate.
More than 3,700 babies were born with syphilis in 2022 — over 10 times the number reported in 2012.
About 200 babies died from the disease that year.
The agency noted that the increase reflects the overall rise in syphilis among women of reproductive age but could be prevented with proper treatment.
In fact, almost nine in 10 cases (88%) in 2022 could have been avoided with timely testing and treatment during pregnancy, according to the agency.
“Too many people are not being tested and treated early enough during pregnancy,” the CDC stated.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that develops in stages and can be passed during pregnancy.
The infection can cause serious health problems without proper treatment but is easily treated with antibiotics, which can be given safely during pregnancy.
“You may not know you have syphilis, and that’s why it’s so important, particularly when pregnant, to get tested,” Dr. Debra Houry, the chief medical officer at the CDC, told ABC News.
However, the data show that more than half of the babies with congenital syphilis in 2022 were born to women who tested positive for syphilis during pregnancy but did not get appropriate treatment.
The CDC claimed that individual- and system-level barriers to care — such as substance abuse and limited health care access — are to blame for the lack of proper testing and care and urgently need to be addressed.
The public health agency found that two in five (40%) people who had a baby with syphilis did not get prenatal care alerting experts to the need to actively expand care.
Experts are also calling for more rapid testing versus traditional blood testing, which can take days, to allow doctors to treat the infection on the spot, as women who are not getting regular prenatal care often can’t be contacted and won’t return for later treatments.
The CDC also recommends testing pregnant people in more settings, including emergency departments, jails and needle exchange programs.
Screening for syphilis during pregnancy should take place at all initial prenatal care visits, according to the CDC, or as soon as pregnancy is identified, as most cases can safely be cleared prior to 30 days before birth.
People in higher risk categories, including those living in a community with high rates of syphilis, should also be screened again at 28 weeks and at delivery, the organization added.
In 2021, 38% of counties in the US — home to 70% of the population — reported syphilis rates that put them in the high-risk category, Stat News reported.
“The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” Houry told Stat News. “New actions are needed to prevent more family tragedies. We’re calling on health care providers, public health systems, and communities to take additional steps to connect mothers and babies with the care they need.”