In 2000, America had just about eradicated congenital syphilis. However, since 2012, the number of congenital syphilis cases (babies born with the disease) has been rising with some places seeing a crisis-level outbreak.
According to public health experts, the blame could be tied to the opioid epidemic. And, until the government addresses both these issues and regains control, President Donald Trump’s promise to eradicate HIV was never be fulfilled.
What is congenital syphilis? It’s syphilis a mother has that’s passed onto her fetus. It can result in miscarriages and stillbirths. Newborns with congenital syphilis often have bone deformities, brain and nerve problems, and meningitis. They could even die in infancy.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of congenital syphilis case increased by 44 percent from 2016 to 2017, and more than 130 percent increase from 2013 to 2017.
In Arizona, there were 53 cases of congenital syphilis in babies in 2018 with 10 of them dying – the most deaths for the disease ever recorded for the state.
Kansas City is facing its own outbreak of congenital syphilis with a 71 percent increase in one year. The outbreak follows four straight years of the health department experiencing local, state and federal budget cuts. With less money, the department cannot fill positions necessary to control the outbreak.
Kansas City leaders were urged to declare a public health emergency, which would allow more resources to go toward the health department. Nothing has been decided as of yet.
According to the National Academy of Public Administration 2018 report, there has been a 40 percent decrease in federal STD funding since 2003. The National Coalition of STD Directors Communications Director Matthew Prior said the majority of state and city health department solely or mostly depend on the federal funding they get.
Prior said every time a case of congenital syphilis is diagnosed, it’s the result of a public health failure. He said the disease is treatable and can be diagnosed easily.
Women who get syphilis are doing so either by sharing needles or having sex with infected partners. According to experts, needle transmissions are increasing with the epidemic level of opioid use. Along with the increase in congenital syphilis cases, the opioid epidemic has hindered the ability health departments have in responding to them due to the resources going toward the drug problem.
$500 million has been spent by the federal government on the opioid crisis in 2018. Only $120 million was spent on STD prevention.
Prior said STDs have yet to rise to critical levels that influence decision makers to allocate the resources.
President Trump pledged during his State of the Union address that he would end HIV in the next 10 years, but Prior said, unless more resources are designated for the prevention of STDs, it wasn’t going to happen. He said HIV can only end if control is regained on other STDs
Alabama has gotten some control over the congenital syphilis outbreak. Since the state noticed a triple number in the number of cases in 2016, it expanded its outreach and education efforts, began testing all pregnant women and improve the interview process for syphilis positive individuals to find those they came into sexual contact with.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health Medical Director for Communicable Disease Karen Landers, when a person comes in for a service, the opportunity should be taken to find out where the disease initially came from. She said that might mean working over county lines. Although Alabama’s numbers for syphilis has also risen, it’s actually dropped since the outbreak in 2016.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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