Objective. To examine the incidence and epidemiologic correlates of congenital syphilis at an inner-city Boston hospital, and draw comparisons with the situation at the same hospital 40 years ago.

Design. Chart review and comparison with data collected in 1951.

Setting. Maternity and pediatric services at Boston City Hospital.

Methods. A study conducted in 1951 on the maternity service of Boston City Hospital in which demographic data were collected on all women admitted in labor over a 5-month period was replicated. Serologic testing for syphilis was carried out on these women, and the demographic and medical correlates of positive maternal syphilis serology were examined. This study was repeated exactly 40 years later, using the cord blood screening for syphilis done routinely at delivery and a review of prenatal records.

Results. From a group made up largely of married white women in 1951, the study population shifted in 1991 to a group made up mostly of minority women, with 75% unmarried. In 1951, 24 patients were diagnosed with syphilis either before or during the pregnancy, giving a prevalence rate of 2.4%. In 1991, 25 of 647 women were diagnosed with syphilis, for a prevalence rate of 3.9%. The women with positive cord blood serologies had a higher rate of other sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse. No symptomatic cases of congenital syphilis were seen in 1951 or in 1991, although at least 11 of the 26 infants born to mothers with positive serologies in 1991 received intravenous penicillin therapy.

Conclusions. The continued prevalence of diagnosed syphilis in women at delivery reflects an inner-city epidemic of congenital syphilis that is tied to substance abuse, human immunodeficiency virus, and changing social patterns, as well to older problems of serologic screening, prenatal care, treatment failures, and maternal reinfection. It is essential that screening programs be maintained and improved in this high-risk population, and that infants born to mothers with positive serologies receive full and adequate treatment if there is any doubt at all about their infection status.

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