Feb 7, 2024 - Health

Syphilis cases surge in North Carolina

Atrium Health in Charlotte

Axios file photo

Mirroring a national trend, North Carolina has seen a surge in syphilis cases in recent years, especially among women of childbearing age.

  • This can result in congenital syphilis — the transfer of the infection from the mother to the fetus.

Why it matters: Congenital syphilis is typically preventable with early detection and treatment.

  • But left untreated, it can lead to premature births and developmental challenges — and in the most devastating cases, infant deaths and stillbirths.

What they're saying: "This is an issue where access to care becomes a challenge," Rebecca Pierce-Williams, an Atrium physician who specializes in maternal and fetal medicine, told reporters recently.

  • If women are uninsured or have limited resources, they may not be receiving adequate care during pregnancy, she added.

Zoom out: 2023 was the deadliest year in the past decade for babies who contracted the disease during gestation in North Carolina, WBTV reported.

  • Two former employees from the Mecklenburg County Public Health said they warned their superiors about an impending crisis in 2022, according to a WBTV investigation.

By the numbers: Syphilis cases have increased 631% since 2012 among adults in North Carolina, according to Atrium Health. Cases have more than doubled since 2018.

  • Nationwide, cases of congenital syphilis have soared by 937% in the past decade, according to an annual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

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, Axios' Jason Millman reported.

Between the lines: A major problem with syphilis is that many patients don't have symptoms or don't realize they have symptoms, local health authorities say.

  • The most common symptom is a painless lesion on the external genital region, according to Pierce-Williams.

The bottom line: "We all just need to be aware of it, especially during pregnancy," said Michael Leonard, an infectious disease specialist at Atrium. "We have to test regardless of whether symptoms are there or not."


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