Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

More Pennsylvania babies are being born with syphilis as cases among adults increase

This 1972 microscope image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a Treponema pallidum bacterium which causes the disease syphilis.
Susan Lindsley
CDC (via AP)
This 1972 microscope image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a Treponema pallidum bacterium, which causes the disease syphilis.

In just a decade, the syphilis rate for newborns in Pennsylvania more than tripled.

Between 2011 and 2020, the rate rose from 3.3 cases per 100,000 live births to 10.4 cases.

Start your morning with today's news, delivered weekdays at 7 a.m.

Check box to subscribe:

That’s according to data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that the national rate of congenital syphilis was even more alarming, growing from 8.5 to 57.3 cases per 100,000 live births over the same period.

Congenital syphilis can cause brain or nerve problems, low birth weight, and bone deformities. It also results in more miscarriages and stillbirths.

As the scale of this problem is less severe in the commonwealth compared to other states, Pennsylvania has a window to take decisive action.

“For example,Texas is one of the states that requires syphilis screening at the first visit, the third trimester and at delivery. That’s one policy solution,” said Dulce Mendoza, a public health educator for the Allegheny County Health Department.

While pregnant people are offered this testing in Pennsylvania, it’s not required.

According to the county health department, there were no cases of congenital syphilis in 2020. However, rates of syphilis are on the rise locally,and nationally. This is why preventative measures such as condoms, sterile needles and testing could protect future infants from being born with the infectious disease.

“Like most sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis is at the crux of a lot of social influences and individual influences that kind of play out when people have sex,” Dr. Yasaswi Kislovski, director of reproductive infectious disease at Allegheny Health Network.

For example, when people engage in high-risk sex or use drugs, they are more likely to not only become pregnant but also contract and spread the bacterial infection.

Kislovski notes that intimate partner violence and sexual coercion also puts people at greater danger. Public health experts say the COVID-19 pandemic created a more potent environment for both domestic violence and drug use, so there’s concern this will increase the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.

“Anecdotally as a provider, as a person who is taking care of people who are getting STD testing, I am taking care of more people with new syphilis diagnosis,” she said. “I’m very curious to see what the data will show.”

The good news is syphilis is completely preventable and treatable using penicillin, which is safe during pregnancy.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.