Home/ News / World/  Syphilis in babies - All you need to know as cases skyrocket in several countries

A growing number of children have recently been born with congenital syphilis in the US and Canada. The sexually transmitted disease has made a global resurgence in recent years with North America reporting thousands of cases. Officials cite increased methamphetamine use and lack of access to the public health system for some people as reasons for the surge.

According to Health Canada data, the incidence of babies born with syphilis reached 26 per 100,000 live births in 2021 - up from 2 in 2017. There has already been a 13-fold rise in the rate over five years, and the number is on track for a fresh increase when 2022 data becomes available. 

Only the United States had a higher incidence of syphilis at birth, with the rate trippling between 2017 and 2021.There were 2,677 cases of congenital syphilis in the U.S. in 2021 for a population of 332 million. A research paper shared on the US CDC website indicates that the number of reported cases had stood at a mere 334 ten years earlier in 2012.

What is congenital syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause serious health problems if left untreated. According to the CDC, one can become infected due to direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

Congenital syphilis meanwhile occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy. 

Is it serious?

It can have major health effects including miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, low birth weight or death shortly after birth. The baby's health depends on how long the mother has had the infection and whether any treatment was sought.

According to the World Health Organization, babies with congenital syphilis are at higher risk of low birthweight, bone malformations and sensory difficulties. Syphilis in pregnancy is also the second-leading cause of stillbirth worldwide.

What are the symptoms in infected children?

Congenital syphilis can prompt a slew of symptoms in babies including deformed bones, severe anemia (low blood count), enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, brain and nerve problems (like blindness or deafness), meningitis, and skin rashes.

A baby born with syphilis may not show symptoms at birth. Left untreated however the child can develop serious problems or even die from the infection.

How can it be treated?

While the simplest way to address the issue would be testing expecting mothers during their first prenatal visit, congenital syphilis can also be treated. 

“Some women should be tested more than once during pregnancy...it can be treated and cured with antibiotics. If you test positive for syphilis during pregnancy, be sure to get treatment right away," the CDC explains. 

Depending on the circumstances the baby may need to be tested for syphilis and treated accordingly. “Babies who have CS need to be treated right away — or they can develop serious health problems. Depending on the results of the baby’s medical evaluation, they may need antibiotics in a hospital for 10 days. In some cases, only one injection of antibiotic is needed," the CDC website explains.

(With inputs from agencies)

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Updated: 01 Apr 2023, 08:21 PM IST
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