US health officials are raising urgent concerns over a disturbing rise in the number of babies born with syphilis, a dangerous and often preventable infection in infants. Syphilis can cause severe, disabling, and sometimes life-threatening consequences for newborns when transmitted in the womb from an infected mother, leading to congenital syphilis.
Each case of congenital syphilis is viewed as a “never event,” an outcome that should never occur, as it is almost always preventable when detected and treated in a timely manner. A single course of penicillin administered at least one month before the end of pregnancy typically prevents the transmission of the bacteria from infected mothers to their babies.
However, alarming statistics reveal that more than 3,700 babies were born with syphilis in the US in 2022, representing a 32% increase compared to the previous year and a staggering tenfold (1,000%) rise since 2012, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Tragically, nearly 300 of these babies died or were stillborn, as reported in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Dr. Laura Bachmann, Chief Medical Officer in the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, expressed that these new figures represent the highest reported cases in the US in over three decades.
Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC’s Chief Medical Officer, highlighted the crisis of congenital syphilis in the United States, describing it as a heart-wrenching situation despite repeated warnings and calls for action.
Untreated syphilis in babies can lead to stillbirth, organ and bone damage, vision and hearing impairments, and lifelong health issues. In a rare move, the CDC has employed strong language, describing the situation in the US as “dire” and “alarming,” and has called upon the entire medical community, not just obstetrician/gynecologists, to collaborate in identifying and treating infected individuals to safeguard newborns.