Jan 30, 2024 - Health

Syphilis cases continue rising, with large increases among newborns

Reported congenital syphilis cases per 100k births, 2022
Data: CDC; Map: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Syphilis cases have risen to their highest levels since the 1950s, with a sharp increase in infections among newborns, new federal data show.

The big picture: The nation's long-running rise in syphilis cases worsened in 2022 and rates of other sexually transmitted infections remained elevated as the COVID-19 pandemic further strained public health programs.

By the numbers: Overall syphilis cases increased 17% to more than 207,000 in 2022 and are up nearly 80% since 2018, according to an annual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Tuesday.

  • Cases of congenital syphilis, in which the infection is passed from the mother to the fetus, jumped 30.6% in 2022 and have soared by 937% in the past decade.
  • There were over 2.5 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia reported in the U.S. in 2022.

Zoom in: There were 3,755 cases of congenital syphilis in 2022, resulting in 282 stillbirths and infant deaths from a disease that is typically preventable with early detection and treatment.

  • Nearly 6 in 10 cases were reported in just five states, the CDC said: Texas, California, Arizona, Florida and Louisiana.
  • New Mexico had the highest rates of congenital syphilis of any state (355.3 cases per 100,000 live births), followed by South Dakota (351.8), Arizona (281.1), Texas (246.8) and Oklahoma (227.2).
  • Overall rates of syphilis, which increased among all age groups, rose the highest among racial and ethnic minorities.

Zoom out: The nation's efforts to combat sexually transmitted infections has reached "a tipping point," said Laura Bachmann, acting director of the CDC's Division of STD Prevention.

  • "We have long known that these infections are common, but we have not faced such severe effects of syphilis in decades," Bachmann said in a statement.
  • The CDC last fall proposed use of an old antibiotic, doxycycline, following unprotected sex to help reduce sexually transmitted infections. The agency's draft recommendations are limited to transgender women and men who have sex with men.
  • The Biden administration last year also launched a federal syphilis task force, and it earlier this month allowed the importation of a form of penicillin that treats syphilis and has been in shortage.

Of note: Cases of chlamydia — the most common sexually transmitted infection — remained stable at about 1.7 million cases in 2022.

  • Gonorrhea cases declined about 9% to about 648,000 — the first reported drop in at least a decade. But it's too early to know whether that represents a true reversal in the trend, the CDC said.
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