In the past decade, the United States has witnessed a disconcerting surge in the number of newborns diagnosed with syphilis. Shockingly, recent data from the CDC revealed that over 3,700 babies were born with the disease in 2022 alone, marking a tenfold increase from 2012.
Dr. John Vanchiere, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at LSU Health in Shreveport, Louisiana, sheds light on the driving factors behind this alarming trend and explores potential interventions.
The Canary in the Coal Mine: Decoding Congenital Syphilis as a Community Indicator
Dr. Vanchiere likens congenital syphilis in babies to a canary in a coal mine, emphasizing that it serves as an indicator of the prevalence of syphilis in the broader community. The rise in affected newborns reflects a parallel increase in syphilis among adults. This correlation has been a well-established trend for decades, acting as a poignant signal of the health of a community.
Potential Harms and Varied Manifestations in Newborns
While many infants with congenital syphilis may exhibit mild or no symptoms, the potential consequences are serious. Premature birth due to maternal syphilis, stillbirths, and a spectrum of symptoms ranging from mild to severe, including neurologic and respiratory damage, underscore the gravity of the issue.
Unraveling the Root Causes: A Three-Decade Trend
The escalating numbers align with a broader trend of rising syphilis cases in the United States over the last three decades. With over 175,000 adult cases annually, the spillover effect on infants is pronounced. Dr. Vanchiere emphasizes that a staggering 90% of these cases in newborns are preventable, underscoring the need for improved testing and timely intervention during pregnancy.
Barriers to Effective Prevention: Late Pregnancy Care and Testing Disparities
Despite available tests and treatments, the efficacy of prevention efforts faces numerous challenges. Some mothers delay entering pregnancy care until late stages, while disparities in testing frequency and physician judgment contribute to the issue. Racial disparities persist, with Hispanic, Black, American Indian, and Alaskan native mothers facing higher risks.
The Call for National Political Will: A Public Health Imperative
Dr. Vanchiere advocates for a national political commitment to combat sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Drawing parallels to the COVID-19 response, he highlights the need for robust funding and advanced technologies to proactively address endemic threats. The current healthcare system, he argues, is failing to curb the surge in STIs, necessitating a paradigm shift to ensure a healthier future.
As the nation grapples with this unsettling rise in congenital syphilis cases, Dr. Vanchiere’s insights call attention to the urgency of a comprehensive and collaborative approach to tackle the root causes and pave the way for a healthier future for both mothers and newborns.