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A surge in congenital syphilis reveals gaps in obstetric practice

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What does the CDC recommend for screening and treatment as a result?



The rate of congenital syphilis increased to 11.6 cases per 100,000 live births in 2014 in the United States—the highest rate documented since 2001, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1 The increase in the rate of congenital syphilis reflects a rise in the rate of primary and secondary syphilis among US women, from 0.9 to 1.1 cases per 100,000 women, during the same period.1

The rate of congenital syphilis had declined between 2008 and 2012, from 10.5 cases to 8.4 cases per 100,000 live births.

Congenital syphilis occurs when an infected mother transmits the disease to her fetus during pregnancy. Among the adverse effects of congenital syphilis are deformities, stillbirth, and early infant death. “However, among mothers identified with syphilis who deliver past 20 weeks’ gestation, treatment with penicillin at least 30 days before delivery is 98% effective at preventing [congenital syphilis],” the CDC report notes.1

For the purposes of the CDC report, congenital syphilis includes “both infants and stillbirths with clinical evidence” of the disease, “as well as those infants and stillbirths born to mothers with untreated or inadequately treated syphilis, regardless of the infant’s manifestation of clinical disease.”1

CDC recommendations
The CDC notes that most of the increases in the rates of maternal and congenital syphilis likely stem from inadequate prenatal care.

“A large percentage of [congenital syphilis] cases continue to be attributable to a lack of prenatal care; even among those receiving some prenatal care, the detection and treatment of maternal syphilis is often not early enough….At particular risk are those who are uninsured or underinsured and those with substance use issues.”1

Among the recommendations of the CDC:

  • Screen all pregnant women for syphilis at their first prenatal visit.
  • Screen women at elevated risk for syphilis, as well as those who live in “high-morbidity geographic areas” at the beginning of the third trimester and again at delivery.
  • In cases where prenatal care has been lacking, screen the woman for syphilis using a rapid plasma reagin (RPR) card and treat the patient who tests positive at the time the pregnancy is confirmed.
  • Do not discharge an infant from the hospital unless the syphilis serologic status of the mother has been tested at least once during pregnancy and, preferably, again at delivery (in high-risk cases).
  • Test any woman who delivers a stillborn infant for syphilis.

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