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Once near 'elimination', syphilis and other STDs surging, especially among newborns

Newborn syphilis cases quadruple since 2019
Posted at 5:30 PM, Apr 14, 2021

Annual cases of sexually transmitted diseases reached an all-time high for a sixth consecutive year, according to the CDC, with the sharpest increase in cases of syphilis among newborns.

“Less than 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates in the U.S. were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and advances in chlamydia diagnostics made it easier to detect infections,” said Raul Romaguera, DMD, MPH, acting director for CDC’s Division of STD Prevention in a written statement.

“That progress has since unraveled.”

The agency reports about 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in 2019, the most recent year that the CDC has complete data. This is a 30% increase from the number of cases in 2015.

The number of congenital syphilis, which are babies born with the disease, has nearly quadrupled since 2015, an increase of 279%.

NPR talked to a pediatrician in Fresno, California. She said she has seen first-hand the sharp increase in the number of babies born with syphilis.

Christian Faulkenberry-Miranda recalls seeing only a handful of cases a year when she started in 2010, and is now seeing about two a week.

"The disappointing thing is that syphilis is very treatable," Faulkenberry-Mirandatold NPR. "This is something that's completely preventable with proper screening and treatment of these moms during pregnancy."

Doctors say some of the mothers are not getting prenatal care, where syphilis could be spotted and treated before the birth of the child.

The reasons for not getting care are varied, but some health experts tell NPR it could be because they are homeless or living in poverty, or they are using drugs and are concerned about law enforcement involvement if they go to a doctor.

CDC officials say preliminary data from 2020 show many of the increasing trends continued during the pandemic, while many were stuck at home and could not get tested or treatment services.