Centers for Disease Control recorded 918 cases of syphilis in infants in 2017, a 46% increase on the previous year.The 918 cases of syphilis in infants last year included 64 babies who were stillborn, and 13 who died as infants.
Nearly 1,000 babies were born with syphilis in the United States last year – a number that has more than doubled in just four years, new statistics show.
The spike in babies born with the dangerous but easily curable disease is one face of a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) crisis that has worsened across the country, with diagnoses hitting a new record high in 2017.
There were 918 cases of syphilis in infants in 2017 – a 20-year high, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up 46% from the 628 cases the year before, and up from 362 in 2013.
“It’s just a systemic public health failure,” David Harvey, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, told the Guardian. “It’s shocking that this has come roaring back in the United States.”
The spike in the disease, known as congenital syphilis in infants, comes even as the US has come close to eliminating the transmission of HIV from mothers to children.
The 918 cases last year included 64 babies who were stillborn, and 13 who died as infants.
It is easily preventable: women who test positive for syphilis while pregnant can be treated and cured with penicillin, and won’t pass the disease on to their babies.
But some women never get tested, while others test negative but then contract the disease during their pregnancy. Left untreated, there’s an 80% chance a woman will pass the disease on to her baby.
“When passed to a baby, syphilis can result in miscarriage, newborn death and severe lifelong physical and mental health problems,” said Dr Jonathan Mermin of the CDC.
“No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment,” Mermin said.
The spike in infant cases comes amid a jump in syphilis infections overall – there were 30,644 diagnoses in 2017, a 76% increase from the previous year.
Gay and bisexual men make up a large majority of people diagnosed with syphilis. But for the last five years, syphilis rates among women have been rising as well.
The syphilis rate went up 143% among reproductive age women since 2013, according to the CDC, bringing with it a jump in babies born with the disease.
Infants born with syphilis were reported in 37 states, with western and southern states the hardest hit. Louisiana had the highest rate of congenital syphilis of any state.
Harvey said the increase reflects a failure to make sure women are tested for the disease at the correct times in their pregnancies, and a lack of access to prenatal care overall.
The opioid epidemic has also contributed to the uptick, with women who use drugs more likely to engage in risky sex and less likely to get proper treatment.
“A small number of women are trading sex for drugs,” Harvey said. “There is a very real intersection between congenital syphilis and substance abuse.”
Total STD diagnoses have reached a record high – with nearly 2.3m cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in 2017, according to the CDC’s report. That’s an increase of more than 200,000 cases from the previous year, and the fourth straight year there has been a sharp increase.
“Not that long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and we were able to point to advances in STD prevention,” Dr Gail Bolan, the director of the division of STD prevention, said in the CDC’s report. “That progress has since unraveled.”
The infections have surged as STD prevention funding has dwindled, and condom use has declined.
Harvey is pushing the Trump administration and Congress to declare the issue a public health emergency.
“This field is starved for resources. It’s become a crisis,” he said.