More Texas babies are being born with syphilis, experts explain why

Melanie Lawson Image
Wednesday, May 10, 2023
More Texas babies are being born with syphilis, experts explain why
Some Texas clinics are skipping a test for syphilis in pregnant women, leading to the rise of cases of babies being born with the STD, experts say.

It's an unwelcome distinction for Texas, with alarming statistics being reported involving newborns and a common sexually transmitted disease.

Our state leads the nation when it comes to babies born with syphilis, and the problem is getting worse.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers have gone up by more than 32% between 2020 and 2021.

And those numbers don't include the effects of COVID-19.

A maternal/fetal expert at UT Health and Memorial Hermann Hospital said syphilis is often asymptomatic in pregnant women.

Dr. Irene Stafford calls it a "quiet" disease. Doctors and clinics are supposed to test for STDs during routine prenatal visits, but many fail to do so, believing that syphilis has been all but wiped out.

Although many babies of infected women are born with the disease, the results for newborns with syphilis can be devastating.

So, how can you tell if a baby has syphilis?

"Babies that are born that are symptomatic with syphilis can have rashes," Stafford said. "They can have lesions and up to 60% of babies with syphilis infection have neurological problems, which is a pretty significant problem."

Stafford said the answer is simple: All pregnant women and even women in their reproductive years should be tested for syphilis. If they test positive, all it takes is a shot of penicillin up to a month before delivery to make sure their baby is born healthy.

"This is really what the most important thing is that if we don't get treated, we don't get screened and treated during pregnancy," Stafford said. "These babies have up to a 30 to 40% chance of stillbirth risk, or a neonatal death risk."

Stafford said Texas law requires healthcare professionals to test all pregnant patients for syphilis in the first and second trimesters, and again at birth. She theorizes that many doctors and clinics don't know the rules. Even pregnant women who show up in the emergency room may not be tested for the STD. That's why she thinks a public relations campaign targeting both mothers-to-be and their doctors is the most effective way to attack the problem.

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