STD cases spiking among newborn babies in US, doctors say

Doctors and health experts are warning that syphilis cases are surging in the U.S. among newborns, with a doctors group now urging that all pregnant patients be screened three times for the sexually transmitted infection.

The new guidance, released Thursday by the American College of Obstetrians and Gynecologists, advises healthcare providers to conduct syphilis screening at three key points during pregnancy: at the initial prenatal visit, during the third trimester, and again at birth. While not mandatory, medical professionals typically adhere to ACOG's recommendations. 

"The cases of congenital syphilis are definitely climbing, and they’ve been climbing over the last 10 years. And it’s completely preventable ... It’s unacceptable," Dr. Laura Riley, who chairs the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine and helped with the guidance, told the Associated Press. "We need to be able to do better diagnostics and treatment."

Previously, the group only recommended one test in the third trimester, primarily for women deemed at risk of syphilis exposure during pregnancy or residing in high-prevalence communities. However, Riley noted the limitations of this risk-based approach, explaining that it often leads to missed cases.

What is syphilis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. 

A woman holding her stomach, eight months into her pregnancy. (Credit: Katie Collins - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

The disease spreads from person-to-person by direct contact with a syphilitic sore, known as a chancre. Syphilis can spread during sex, and pregnant people with syphilis also can transmit the infection to their unborn child.

More than 3,700 babies were born with congenital syphilis in 2022, the most in more than 30 years, the CDC reported

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Syphilis can cause serious health effects without adequate treatment, underscoring U.S. health officials’ call for more prevention efforts, including widespread screening utilizing blood tests.

In its advisory, the OB-GYN group said CDC statistics show nearly 9 in 10 congenital syphilis cases that year "could have been prevented with timely screening and treatment."

How to treat syphilis during pregnancy

Syphilis infections during pregnancy typically require treatment with multiple doses of penicillin. Untreated syphilis in expectant mothers can result in stillbirths or neonatal deaths shortly after delivery, in addition to severe complications such as bone deformities, anemia, blindness or deafness in newborns.

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"I hope that everyone takes it seriously," Riley said. Kids with congenital syphilis may have birth defects that can be devastating — "which is incredibly sad."

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.