Researchers are urging pregnant women to get tested after studies showed that congenital syphilis rates increased by 700% in the past decade.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), congenital syphilis is when a syphilis-infected mother transmits the disease to her unborn baby during pregnancy.
Experts say there’s a 98% chance that the infection won’t be passed to the baby if treated with penicillin 30 days before delivery. But because pregnant mothers aren’t being tested or treated in time, the disease is transmitted to the newborn, impacting its health.
“It really is upsetting because this is something that is fully preventable if we have the right screening and treatment,” Dr. Robert McDonald of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of STD Prevention, Surveillance and Data Management told CNN. “It’s out there; people just need to be connected with that.”
The US areas with higher rates of congenital syphilis are the south and southwest. From 2016 to 2021, Mississippi saw a 3,300% increase in cases, Oklahoma had a 3,000% increase, Hawaii’s cases increased more than 2,200% and New Mexico experienced an over 1,600% increase.
In 2021, there were 2,677 babies reportedly with congenital syphilis, and more than 200 died.
One of the contributing factors to the drastic increase in cases is how Medicaid is set up. Some states allow temporary Medicaid coverage for pregnant women, including low-income women. During the temporary coverage (up to 45 days), a pregnant woman could be tested, diagnosed and treated for syphilis.
However, they could still be at risk for re-infection due to the sex partner not getting tested. That temporary Medicaid doesn’t cover those who are childless and aren’t disabled. So, the male partners aren’t covered to get tested and treated to protect the woman carrying a child.
Another factor is the Covid-19 pandemic. Many health experts associated with STD programs were instructed to assist with coronavirus preventatives.
And because Covid was the center of attention, the awareness around congenital syphilis decreased.
Furthermore, McDonald said that because congenital syphilis was rare, many doctors, especially those trained in the ’90s or early ’00s, don’t recognize syphilis or its signs. Additionally, many doctors don’t test pregnant women for diseases during visits.
That’s what happened to Danae Johnson’s daughter. Johnson’s granddaughter, Venus Johnson, was born with congenital syphilis. Before Venus’ birth, Danae noticed her daughter was sick during the fifth month of her pregnancy. She took her daughter to the hospital and was sent away.
One thing to note is that syphilis is also known as “the great pretender” because its symptoms are similar to other diseases, from fever and sore throat to swollen lymph nodes and fatigue — even hair loss.
Additionally, symptoms can appear 10 to 90 days after infection, and without treatment, the “minor symptoms” can turn major by attacking the brain, nerves, eyes, and organs. Syphilis can result in deafness, blindness or death.
Danae’s daughter was diagnosed with syphilis two weeks before her delivery, which goes against the CDC’s recommendation — for pregnant women to be tested for syphilis during their first prenatal visit. Once the disease is detected, CDC recommends treatment every three months.
When doctors discovered the disease in her daughter, it had already damaged Venus’ lungs.
Venus is now in and out of the hospital, getting sick often. Last fall, she contracted RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) and had to be hospitalized on a ventilator for a month.
Danae, a grandmother fired from work due to constantly taking care of her grandchild and having her house sold without warning by her landlord, created a GoFundMe to receive financial help with Venus’ hospital bills.
Danae said that had doctors listened to her concerns, they would’ve caught it earlier, and Venus probably would’ve had a more normal life. She’s right.