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Dr. Debra Bogen, Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary, speaks of the state’s rise in newborn syphilis cases during a press conference in Wilkes-Barre on Nov. 21, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Health)

As congenital syphilis cases rise in Pennsylvania and across the country, state health officials are working to break down the dangerous stigma attached to the infection and are urging more pregnant people to get tested.

“Talking openly like we are today about syphilis, and newborn syphilis specifically, can reduce the stigma surrounding the disease and increase the number of healthy babies born across the state,” Dr. Debra Bogen, Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary, said during a press conference in Wilkes-Barre on Monday.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can be effectively treated during pregnancy. If left untreated, it can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, low birth weight, or a newborn’s death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babies that do survive can go on to suffer from bone malformations, blindness, deafness, and other developmental delays.

Congenital syphilis cases have been on the rise in the United States and jumped about 30% in 2022 over the previous year, according to a CDC report released in November. The number of reported congenital syphilis cases soared 755% between 2012 and 2021, going from 335 in 2012 to 2,865 in 2021, the CDC reported.

Pennsylvania recorded 39 infants with newborn syphilis in 2022 — the highest number since 1990, according to state health officials. The number of early syphilis cases among women of childbearing age has increased from 98 cases in 2010 to 587 cases in 2022 in Pennsylvania, the state health department reported.

Bogen explained that barriers to accessing prenatal care, such as a lack of health insurance, is one reason for the increase. The authors of the November CDC report wrote that a “lack of timely testing and adequate treatment during pregnancy contributed to 88% of congenital syphilis cases in 2022 and represent missed opportunities to prevent maternal syphilis-associated morbidity.”

“I do think some of this is really about access to care and getting people to prenatal care,” Bogen said at Monday’s press conference. 

David Harvey, director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, a nonprofit, told NPR that federal cuts to public health funding and a nationwide shortage of the antibiotic used to treat syphilis, Bicillin, is severely complicating providers’ ability to address the disease. 

“We have a perfect storm in the United States of funding cutbacks, not enough testing and treatments and a lack of awareness of this out-of-control syphilis epidemic, and babies are paying the prices,” Harvey told NPR.

CNN reported that CDC funding to prevent sexually transmitted diseases has fallen more than 40% since 2003, according to an a​​nalysis by the National Coalition of STD Directors. In June, state and local health departments throughout the country discovered the national debt ceiling deal included cutting $1 billion that had been slated to go to preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

“The number of entirely preventable congenital syphilis cases in America is appalling and reflects a collapse of the health systems we rely on to keep families safe,” Harvey said in a Nov. 7 press release. 

The National Coalition of STD Directors is calling on the federal government to restore that $1 billion for sexually transmitted disease prevention and to create a role for a White House syphilis response coordinator.A list of county health providers that offer free sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment services is available on the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s website. Further information about syphilis and pregnancy can be found by clicking here.

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