Houston Health Department reported an outbreak of syphilis, with a 128% increase among women living in the city. Congenital cases have increased nine-fold in Houston and Harris County since 2019.
In a news release issued on Thursday, health officials confirmed the outbreak.
According to the Department, new infections increased by 57% between 2019 and 2022. In 2022, there were 2,905 infections, up from 1,845 in 2019.
According to the press release, there were 674 women's cases of syphilis in 2022. This is a dramatic increase from just 295 cases reported in 2019. In 2021, which is the last year for which statistics were available, there were 151 congenital cases, up from 16 in 2016.
Congenital Syphilis occurs when a pregnant woman passes on the bacteria to her baby while in the womb. Congenital syphilis that is not treated can cause stillbirth, or even damage to the organs and bones of a baby.
In a news release, Marlene McNeese, deputy assistant in the Houston Health Department's Bureau of HIV/STI Prevention and Viral hepatitis prevention, said that it is important for pregnant women seeking prenatal care to get tested for syphilis. This could prevent them from contracting an infection which can lead to the death of their baby. A pregnant woman should be tested three times for syphilis during pregnancy.
According to the release, pregnant women should be tested at their first prenatal visit, at the end of the third trimester and during delivery for syphilis.
According to a release, the Health Department waives all fees associated with sexually transmitted diseases at its health centres.
The release stated that the department will also 'expand the use of its HIV/STD Mobile Clinic to increase the community screening sites, and set up in selected areas, chosen from disease monitoring data and case management data'.
The most common way that syphilis is spread is through sexual contact. Direct contact with a sore that appears on the mouth or genitals can spread the disease.
If it is caught early, antibiotics can be used to treat syphilis. Without treatment, the infection may lie dormant for many years, or even decades, before it attacks the brain, nerves and eyes. It can lead to deafness and blindness.
Congenital syphilis is on the rise in the US, especially in the South and Southwest. CNN reported that infections in newborns had increased by 700% over the last decade. Experts attribute the increase to a number of factors, including a lack of funding for sexual-health programs, a shortage in qualified personnel and uneven coverage by Medicaid.
As early syphilis symptoms may be subtle, it is possible that pregnant women and their healthcare providers will not detect it or screen it.