Fetal deaths from congenital syphilis in Harris Co. up 250%, Houston Health Department data shows

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Friday, July 16, 2021
CDC estimates 1 in 5 Americans have an STD
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HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Houston Health Department is calling for action after preliminary data shows that there has been an increase in fetal deaths linked to a congenital syphilis surge in the area among Black and Hispanic women.

The department said Tuesday that the data indicated that fetal deaths in Harris County, including Houston, increased from four in 2019 to 14 in 2020, a 250% increase.

Even more concerning, Beau Mitts, chief of the department's bureau of HIV/STD and Viral Hepatitis Prevention, said that all the fetal deaths in Harris County over the past two years were Black or Hispanic, highlighting stark disparities in testing and treatment.

More babies are born with congenital syphilis in the Houston area than any other part of the state, according to the health department.

Houston Health also found that:

  • The number of syphilis cases among pregnant mothers in Houston and Harris County continues to increase.
  • There was a 43% rise in cases from 2018 (104 cases) to 2019 (149 cases).

  • Women ages 15-44 in Houston and Harris County accounted for 89% of all female syphilis cases in 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a 2019 report that Texas ranked first for total congenital syphilis cases reported in the United States that year.

In an effort to combat this, Houston Health launched My Prenatal Promise, a campaign that urges pregnant women, especially women of color, to get tested to protect their babies from the disease.

It follows three actions for expectant mothers:

  • Talk to your doctor and ask about syphilis
  • Get tested for syphilis three times during pregnancy. This is required by Texas state law, which says that HIV and syphilis tests must take place during the pregnant woman's first prenatal visit and during her third trimester. An additional syphilis test must be performed at delivery. You can read more about the requirement on the Texas Department of State Health Services website.
  • Treat you and your partner right away if diagnosed with syphilis.

Left untreated, STDs can have serious long-term health complications. Chlamydia can damage the male and female reproductive system and lead to pregnancy complications. Syphilis can also lead to pregnancy problems, the aforementioned infections in newborns and - if not treated with antibiotics - organ damage and neurological problems in both men and women.

According to an April 7 article from the Associated Press, testing for diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea plummeted in many parts of the U.S. last year as COVID-19 sapped away resources and staff. Health officials say this testing gap left them unable to track or control outbreaks of the diseases, which were already at record levels before the pandemic.

Many STD clinics shut their doors or slashed their hours during the lockdowns last spring. Staffers who previously helped track the infections were reassigned to focus on COVID-19. And labs that process most STD tests were forced to ration supplies to focus on the flood of incoming COVID-19 samples.

The CDC has warned that STDs have been rising steadily for five years, hitting a record number of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia cases in 2018. Officials attribute the trend to increases in unstable housing, drug use and social stigma, along with cuts to sexual education and public health budgets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The video above is from a Jan. 2021 report on sexually transmitted infections in the U.S.