The number of babies born with syphilis in Miami-Dade and Broward counties has skyrocketed in recent years, contributing to a statewide and national trend that has raised concern among public health officials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its annual surveillance report on sexually transmitted diseases released Tuesday, found that cases of congenital syphilis jumped from 362 in 2013 to 918 in 2017 — the highest number of recorded cases in 20 years.
Florida reported 93 cases of congenital syphilis, or about 41.3 per 100,000 births, in 2017, among the highest in the nation, the CDC said.
A total of 37 states reported cases of syphilis passed from mothers to their newborns in 2017. The Sunshine State was one of five that accounted for 70 percent of all the cases last year. The other states are Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California.
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Public health officials say the surge in congenital syphilis is troubling in part because the disease can be deadly to newborns, and also because it is easily cured with the right antibiotics.
When passed to a baby, syphilis can lead to a miscarriage, newborn death or severe physical and mental health problems, said Jonathan Mermin, a physician and director of the CDC’s national center for preventing sexually transmitted and other infectious diseases. If left untreated, a pregnant woman with syphilis has up to an 80 percent chance of passing it on to her baby.
“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 in a written statement.
In Florida, the health department has reported the greatest increases in congenital syphilis in five counties: Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia and Orange. Miami-Dade reported 31 congenital syphilis cases and Broward had 11 in 2017.
Lillian Rivera, director of the Miami-Dade health department, said the agency has launched a program with three prevention coordinators to reach expectant mothers through hospitals and local programs, such as Healthy Start, which provides universal screening for all pregnant women, to ensure they are tested for syphilis.
“We have all hands on deck,” Rivera said. She said a rise in drug abuse and risky behavior appears to be contributing to the rise in syphilis cases.
CDC research shows that one in three women who gave birth to a baby with syphilis in 2016 did get tested during pregnancy, but either acquired syphilis after that test or did not get treated in time to cure the infection. Rivera said many mothers who pass syphilis onto their newborns were not tested during pregnancy.
South Florida public health officials have struggled to contain syphilis rates. From 2013 to 2015, the rate of syphilis infections reported in Miami-Dade and Broward counties rose faster than in the rest of the state and much of the nation.
The two South Florida counties accounted for nearly 42 percent of the 5,340 syphilis cases reported in Florida from 2013-2015, according to the state health department. Recent data show that syphilis infection rates have fluctuated in South Florida counties, rising in Broward from a rate of 15.9 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 17.5 in 2017, and declining in Miami-Dade from a rate of 19.8 per 100,000 in 2016 to 17.5 in 2017.