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Pennsylvania Department of Health encourages testing as newborn syphilis cases skyrocket nationwide

Pennsylvania Department of Health encourages testing as newborn syphilis cases skyrocket nationwide

CBS News Pittsburgh


HARRISBURG, Pa. (KDKA) — The Pennsylvania Department of Health is encouraging pregnant women to ask their health care providers about getting tested as nationwide cases of newborn syphilis are rising to near record-high levels. 

Newborn syphilis happens when a pregnant woman passes the infection onto a baby. It can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, low birth weight or death shortly after birth, the Department of Health said. 

So far this year, the department has confirmed 31 infants with newborn syphilis. In 2022, 39 infant cases were confirmed, which was the highest number since 17 in 1990.

The rise comes as the number of early syphilis cases among women of childbearing age has jumped substantially, from 98 cases statewide in 2010 to 587 cases in 2022, the Department of Health said. 

“There is no reason for a baby to be born with this dangerous disease – newborn syphilis is preventable with appropriate prenatal care, testing and treatment,” said Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Debra Bogen in a news release. “Together with local health care providers, we want people to know there are simple tests to diagnose syphilis and treatments available to cure syphilis across the lifespan. By identifying and treating syphilis before or during pregnancy, we can prevent newborn syphilis.”

A recent report from the CDC said a lack of timely and adequate treatment contributed to an almost 90% spike in newborn syphilis cases in the United States last year. CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Debra Houry called it a “crisis” that “has skyrocketed at a heartbreaking rate.” 

The state Department of Health recommends health care providers follow CDC guidance and screen all pregnant women for syphilis at the first prenatal visit, during the third trimester and at delivery.

“Talking openly about syphilis and newborn syphilis specifically can help reduce the stigma surrounding the disease and increase the number of healthy child births across the state,” Bogen said. “We want everyone to know that there is free and confidential testing and treatment available for syphilis and other infections at locations across the Commonwealth.”  

The Department of Health’s website has a list of providers by county that offer free STD testing and treatment services.