What is congenital syphilis? Mississippi sees increase of newborns with condition

Mississippi has been hit with a rise of congenital syphilis (CS) in newborns, as there’s been a 900 per cent increase of babies diagnosed with the disease.

Dr Thomas Dobbs, the medical director for the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Crossroads Clinic in Jackson, shared an analysis of the hospital’s billing data in a recent interview with NBC News. More than 102 newborns were treated for sexually transmitted diseases in the state in 2021, while only 10 were treated for it in 2016, according to the data. This shows a 900 per cent increase in cases over the last five years.

The STDs are a result of CS, “which occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy”, as noted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although the Mississippi State Department of Health doesn’t officially track the number of deaths due to CS, there was at least one baby who died from the infection in 2021.

Additionally, the data shared with NBC showed racial disparities in Mississippi. Black newborns were 70 per cent of the state’s CS cases in 2020.

Dobbs, who is the former health officer of Mississippi, also told the publication that she and other health care providers are “absolutely horrified” about babies being born with and dying of this disease.

“This seems like something that should have happened a hundred years ago, not last year,” she said. “There’s really kind of a shock.”

Here’s everything you need to know about congenital syphilis.

What is CS and how common is it?

The condition occurs when a mother has a syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, that has been passed on to their newborn while she’s pregnant.

Along with the data from the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Crossroads Clinic, other studies have found a rise in CS cases in the US over the years. In 2020, there were more than 2,000 cases reported, per the CDC. This is an increase from 2019, when there were “1,870 cases of congenital syphilis reported, including 94 stillbirths and 34 infant deaths”.

The site also shared a 2017 report which explained that if a mother’s syphilis goes untreated, there is an 80 per cent chance it could be passed on to her child.

How does CS impact newborns and what are the symptoms of it?

If a mother has syphilis, it can affect her child’s health during her pregnancy and delivery. The child could be miscarried or stillborn, per the CDC. The baby could also be born premature or at a low weight.

When babies are born with CS, the symptoms can include “deformed bones”, “severe anaemia,” “skin rashes,” and “meningitis”. Newborns can also have “brain and nerve problems”, including the inability to hear or see, or an “enlarged liver and spleen”.

The CDC also notes that not every baby with CS is born with symptoms. While newborns’ health problems usually develop within a few weeks after being born, there can be some causes where health issues “can happen years later”.

How to diagnose CS ?

The “effective prevention and detection of congenital syphilis” depends on if a pregnant woman is identified with syphilis, says the CDC. With that in mind, the health organisation recommends that pregnant women get tested for the STI during their first checkup.

Patients should be screened “according to their state’s guidelines” and the organization adds that “certain states have recommended screening three times during pregnancy for all women”.

Any newborn “at risk for congenital syphilis should receive a full evaluation and testing for HIV,” they recommend.

What are the different forms of treatment?

Once a baby is evaluated after experiencing symptoms of CS, they should be treated right away with antibiotics.

The recommended regimens for confirmed cases of CS have been Aqueous crystalline penicillin G and Procaine penicillin G, which are usually taken over the course of 10 days, according to CDC.  Newborns who are allergic to penicillin “should be desensitised and then treated with penicillin G”.

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