The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging for immediate measures to be taken to tackle a tenfold increase in cases of congenital syphilis over the past decade. This life-threatening infection is transmitted from a mother to her baby during birth. The agency discovered that almost 90 percent of these cases could have been avoided if there was better availability of testing and treatment. This serves as a warning that marginalized individuals are being overlooked by the American healthcare system.
Dr. Laura Bachmann, the CDC’s chief medical officer for preventing STDs, expressed concern in an interview about the current situation. She emphasized the need for a change in approach as the current methods are not effective.
The report’s findings
In 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data showing a 755 percent increase in cases of congenital syphilis compared to the previous decade. This rise was seen in all regions and among all racial and ethnic groups, with the highest rates observed among American Indian and Alaska Native as well as Black and Hispanic populations. This is a significant increase from the near eradication of the disease at the beginning of the 21st century.
According to the agency’s research, it was discovered that most of these cases involved pregnant individuals who were not tested and did not receive treatment. Additionally, 37% of those who were infected did not receive any prenatal care.
If left untreated in pregnant individuals, syphilis can result in stillbirth, miscarriage, and infant mortality, but it can be treated with antibiotics. Infants who do not receive treatment may also experience vision loss, hearing loss, developmental delays, or skeletal issues. In 2022, this infection led to 231 stillbirths and 51 infant deaths.
Bachmann stated that comprehending the rise in syphilis cases is especially challenging, given that it is a preventable disease. He also emphasized the importance of timely screening and treatment for pregnant individuals in order to prevent syphilis transmission to infants.
Causes and solutions
The concerning recent statistics align with a larger increase in sexually transmitted infections, which is attributed by public health experts to inadequate access to testing and treatment for marginalized communities, reductions in public health funding and sexual health initiatives, and ongoing stigma that discourages individuals from seeking care for themselves and their partners.
The recent report highlights ongoing disputes surrounding government initiatives aimed at offering testing and treatment for those without insurance or with low incomes across the nation. One example is the Title X program, which has received the same level of funding for the past ten years despite a rise in STD rates. Furthermore, the current budget proposed by House Republicans aims to completely cut funding for this program. Additionally, the agreement reached earlier this year between the White House and Congress to raise the debt ceiling resulted in a reduction of billions of dollars in Covid funds allocated for addressing other communicable diseases, including STDs, at the state and local level.
Insufficient investments in public health have serious repercussions. According to David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, the current consequence is the loss of infant lives. He urges the administration to prioritize funding for public health and for leaders in sexual, reproductive, and maternal health to join forces in order to alter our current devastating path.
The CDC suggests that providers and public officials find new ways to provide testing to pregnant and sexually active individuals who are at high risk. This may include offering testing in non-traditional locations such as prisons, needle exchange programs, urgent care facilities, and emergency rooms.
Additionally, there is a current deficit in the supply of the sole authorized medication for treating syphilis in pregnant individuals, which is Benzathine penicillin G. Bachmann stated that the agency is instructing healthcare providers to preserve their stock for pregnant patients and utilize alternative antibiotics for non-pregnant individuals with syphilis.
The organization is also urging physicians to prescribe antibiotics to individuals who receive a positive syphilis result on a rapid test, even before receiving confirmation from a lab. This is due to the current epidemic and a push to test and treat sexual partners of patients to prevent reinfection after treatment.