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Number of U.S. babies born with syphilis is skyrocketing — with deadly results, CDC says

The number of U.S. newborns with syphilis doubled since 2013, reaching a 20-year high, according to a Centers for Disease Control report. It’s deadly for babies, and mirrors an increase in syphilis rates among women of childbearing age.
The number of U.S. newborns with syphilis doubled since 2013, reaching a 20-year high, according to a Centers for Disease Control report. It’s deadly for babies, and mirrors an increase in syphilis rates among women of childbearing age. AP

Syphilis rates in the United States are rising among women of reproductive age — and that has deadly consequences for an ever-growing number of newborns, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of babies in the U.S. born with syphilis more than doubled from 2013 to 2017 — from 362 cases to 918 cases of the disease in newborns last year, the CDC said in the report released Tuesday.

The CDC said that in just the last year, the number of cases of syphilis across the U.S. has gone up more than 10 percent. During that same time frame, the number of babies born with the disease rose nearly 50 percent, the CDC said.

A mother with syphilis that is left untreated has an 80 percent chance of passing the disease to her newborn, the report said. And though syphilis is highly treatable in adults of childbearing age, if those women pass the disease on to their babies it can be deadly: As many as 40 percent of babies whose mothers have untreated syphilis are stillborn or die of infection, according to a CDC fact sheet on congenital syphilis.

“No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment,” Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said in a statement.

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CDC officials recommend all pregnant women be tested for syphilis as soon as they can during their pregnancy, because the disease can be cured with an antibiotic.

“To protect every baby, we have to start by protecting every mother,” Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s STD prevention division, said in a statement. “Too many women are falling through the cracks of the system. If we’re going to reverse the resurgence of congenital syphilis that has to change.”

Another obstacle? According to CDC research, one-third of women whose newborns had syphilis in 2016 actually were tested when they were pregnant — but failed to seek treatment to cure the infection, or came down with the disease after they had been tested.

That’s why doctors recommend women who live in areas where the disease is more common, and women who are more likely to be exposed to the disease, get tested for syphilis more frequently during pregnancy.

The health agency also identified some geographic patterns: There were 37 states across the country where at least one case of syphilis in a newborn was reported last year, and the cases were more common in the south and the west.

Some states — Alaska, North Dakota, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware and Maine — had no reported cases, according to a CDC map.

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This map shows the rate of babies born with syphilis across the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But just five states accounted for some 70 percent of the cases: California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, the CDC said. Louisiana had the worst rate, with 93.4 in every 100,000 newborns having the disease, according to the map.

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