HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) — Cases of congenital syphilis are on the rise, reaching a 32-year high in Pennsylvania. Today, health officials discussed the spike and the importance of screening for syphilis.
Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant person with syphilis passes the infection to a baby during pregnancy. It can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, low birth weight or death shortly after birth.
“We’ve seen a tremendous rise in rates of syphilis, especially congenital syphilis. We really would have thought that congenital syphilis had gone away for good. This really is a condition that’s completely preventable,” said Acting Secretary of Health and Pennsylvania Physician General, Dr. Denise Johnson. “Pregnant patients need to understand that syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics. If anyone tests positive for syphilis during pregnancy, they should seek treatment right away,” Dr. Johnson added.
Congenital syphilis can also cause life-long debilitating health issues for the infant. State health officials say there are many ways to prevent syphilis in the first place, but testing for it is the best way to prevent passing it to a newborn.
“Making sure that individuals are using latex condoms for sexual intercourse, having one monogamous partner, and also getting tested for syphilis, because syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics. But people need to know that they have syphilis, they need to get tested,” said Dr. Johnson.
According to Dr. Johnson, numbers of early syphilis cases among women of childbearing age jumped from 29 in 2010 to 211 cases in 2021. Congenital syphilis cases are following a similar trend.
“We know that in the past 12 years, we’ve had about 39 cases of congenital syphilis. This year alone, we’ve seen 12 cases,” said Dr. Johnson. “We hope that by openly talking about this issue, we can reduce stigma surrounding syphilis testing, and ultimately, increase the number of healthy child births across the state,” she added.
“Every case of congenital syphilis is one too many. We have definite ways to cure this condition, and screening, treatment is the way to go,” Dr. Hubert Foka with Hamilton Health Center in Harrisburg.
Dr. Foka says it can be difficult to diagnose syphilis without proper screening. He says it can mimic rashes and other common signs of less serious illnesses.
“The issue with syphilis is that it’s really difficult to diagnose, or difficult for patients to recognize that they have the condition. It can mimic many, many other diseases,” said Dr. Foka. “The patient will come in with a rash that could go away on its own, they can come in with some sort of ulcer that most of the time goes away untreated. So that is a problem and that is the reason why screening and treatment is very, very important,” Dr. Foka added.
Healthcare providers needing additional information are asked to call the department’s Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) program at 717-787-3981.
Additional information about congenital syphilis and pregnancy and the importance of testing and treating the disease can be found at Congenital Syphilis (pa.gov).