Alabama is experiencing an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease. This has led to more than double the number of infants born in 2019 with the infection that can lead to death or disability.
Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother transmits an infection to her baby. Affected newborns can die within a few hours of birth or be stillborn. Others may have skeletal or neurological problems.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), Alabama has seen an increase in congenital siphilis cases from 15 in 2019 up to 36 last year. This agency is trying to raise awareness and encourage women to test for syphilis during pregnancy.
Syphilis can be treated within 30 days of delivery to prevent mothers from passing it on to their babies. Dr. Karen Landers (area health officer for ADPH) said that decades worth of progress in reducing congenital Syphilis have been reversed over the past few years. In 2021, the number of congenital syphilis-positive babies is at its highest level since 2006.
“In my career, we have continued to see a decline in congenital syphilis until fairly recently,” Landers said.
Landers stated that decades ago, women who didn’t receive prenatal care were more likely to get syphilis treatment than those who received it. Those numbers declined as more people had access to care.
According to ADPH however, the majority of congenital siphilis babies were born to mothers who had received prenatal care. Landers advised that pregnant women should have their syphilis tests repeated during pregnancy because of the rise in syphilis cases across Alabama and other states. This will help catch infections that begin in the second or third quarter.
“We can’t just say, ‘Ok they’re negative at the first prenatal visit therefore they’re not going to get an STD throughout their pregnancy,’” Landers said.
Alabama rates reflect national trends. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of congenital syphilis among babies was up 477 percent between 2012 and 2019.
Landers stated that the Alabama Medicaid Agency (ADPH) and ADPH work together to encourage all women to be tested at their first prenatal visit, at 28-weeks and at birth. Medicaid will cover all three tests. Syphilis treatment and testing are also offered by the health departments.
According to ADPH the Alabama Syphilis Infection Rate has quadrupled in Alabama since 2014. The most obvious symptom of syphilis in the initial stage is the chancre. This is a lesion that appears as a circle on the body. This is followed often by a full-body rash, fever, and sore throat. Untreated syphilis may cause permanent damage to the internal organs, as well as neurological damage, many years later.
Syphilis can sometimes be treated by antibiotics. Landers advised anyone who has symptoms to seek testing.
“Syphilis is not a new disease,” Landers said. “This is a disease that has been seen for eons. We have a cure. Syphilis has been successfully treated for decades.”