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Ten times as many babies born with syphilis in 2022 compared to 2012

November 7, 2023

Ten times as many babies were born with syphilis in 2022 than a decade prior, bringing rates to their highest level in at least 30 years, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 88% of last year’s cases could have been prevented with timely testing and treatment during the mother’s pregnancy.

“The congenital syphilis crisis in the United States has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate,” CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H., said in a statement. “New actions are needed to prevent more family tragedies. We’re calling on healthcare providers, public health systems, and communities to take additional steps to connect mothers and babies with the care they need.”

Syphilis during pregnancy can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death or lifelong medical issues for the baby.

Data from the CDC’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System show 3,761 babies were born with syphilis in 2022, up 32% from 2021 and 10 times the number in 2012. There were 231 related stillbirths and 51 infant deaths last year.

About 37% of birth parents had untimely testing or no testing, while 11% had no documented treatment during pregnancy, according to the report. About 40% had inadequate treatment during pregnancy.

The increase in syphilis cases in newborns follows an increase in cases among women of reproductive age, which rose 676% from 2012-’21. CDC experts said some of these women face barriers to care such as lack of insurance, substance use disorder and systemic racism. The biggest risk factor is living in a community with high syphilis rates.

A previous report found babies born to Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native mothers were up to eight times more likely to have newborn syphilis in 2021 than babies born to White mothers.

“These disparities stem from decades of deeply entrenched social factors experienced in daily life that create greater obstacles to high-quality health care services and result in health inequities like higher rates of syphilis in some communities,” Laura Bachmann, M.D., M.P.H., FIDSA, FACP, chief medical officer in CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said at a press conference Tuesday. 

The CDC recommends going beyond the obstetrician’s office and testing pregnant and reproductive-age women in emergency departments, syringe service programs, substance use treatment programs and maternal and child health programs, noting that mothers did not have prenatal care in 38% of congenital syphilis cases last year.

“Care provided in each of these settings could be life-changing and lifesaving,” Dr. Bachmann said.

Health care providers should consider starting treatment immediately after a rapid test for patients who may face barriers to additional care. While the long-acting injectable penicillin used to treat pregnant women has been in short supply since summer, the CDC has asked providers to prioritize available supply for pregnant women and said Tuesday it is not aware of pregnant women not being able to access it.

In addition, the CDC recommends that health care providers in areas with high syphilis rates offer screening to women and their partners regularly before pregnancy.



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