Florida Has Nation’s 5th Highest Rate Of Moms Passing Syphilis To Unborn Babies

Sep 25, 2018

A new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report is drawing attention to a more than doubling of the number of cases of congenital syphilis nationwide, 918 cases in 2017 compared to 362 in 2013.

Congenital cases are passed from mother to her baby during pregnancy or delivery.

Florida has the fifth highest rate of mom’s passing the sexually transmitted disease to their babies, with 93 cases. Together Louisiana, Arizona, California, Texas and Florida accounted for 70 percent of the cases in 2017.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can be easily cured with antibiotics. If left untreated, a pregnant women with syphilis has up to an 80 percent chance of passing it on to her baby, according to the report.

The CDC said babies’ exposure to syphilis in the womb can result in miscarriages, premature births, stillbirths or even the death of newborn babies.

“No parent should have to bear the death of a child when it would have been prevented with a simple test and safe treatment,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H., Director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

The report emphasizes the importance of prenatal care, and so does the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition, which has the mission of all babies being born healthy and seeing their first birthdays

“There’s definitely an opportunity during prenatal care to test for a variety of STDs, whether it be syphilis or bacterial infections, anything like that,” said its Development Director Erin Addington.

The Healthy Start Coalition annually reviews Northeast Florida infant deaths and sexually transmitted infections have been factors in them.

“Maternal STI infections like syphilis and gonorrhea, chlamydia, other things like that during pregnancy do impact those fetal and infant deaths,” Addington said.

The CDC recommends all pregnant women be tested for syphilis the first time they see a doctor about their pregnancy. But women at high risk for syphilis or who live in high-prevalence areas should be tested not only at the first prenatal visit, but again early in the third trimester and at delivery.

The CDC is working on multiple fronts to protect newborns and mothers from syphilis, including:

  • Ramping up support for high burden states to strengthen local prevention systems and improve their ability to identify and treat pregnant women with syphilis.
  • Researching factors contributing to the resurgence of congenital syphilis cases to inform prevention programs.
  • Increasing awareness of congenital syphilis risk factors among pregnant women through partnerships with community organizations like the March of Dimes.

The CDC did not have the numbers of congenital cases broken down by county. But Duval County ranked 39th in the nation for the number of syphilis cases in 2017, a higher rate than Miami-Dade. Broward County with a slightly lower rate than Duval, ranked 16th with its number of cases -- 328 of them in 2017.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.