Cases of babies born with syphilis rise in Nevada in 2020

Data released by the CDC indicates Nevada had the nation’s fourth-highest rate
Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 11:25 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Certain sexually transmitted diseases spiked across the nation during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, including cases involving babies born with syphilis.

According to recent data released by CDC, Nevada remains in the top 10 in that category.

Washoe county ranks the highest in the state for primary and secondary syphilis, as well as congenital syphilis.

In 2020, the state reported 46 cases, which translates to a rate of 131.2 per 100,000 live births of congenital syphilis. That’s a 12% increase from 2019, according to the CDC.

Congenital syphilis is passed on by the mother during pregnancy or delivery.

Sexual Health Program Coordinator for Washoe County, Jennifer Howell says cases of babies born with this disease are considered ‘sentinel events’, a failure of the healthcare system.

“What we see is a lot of the women that have syphilis, that have babies have not had consistent or any prenatal care,” said Howell.

They may also be homeless, have substance abuse problems, and one more than one pregnancy.

“What we’ve heard from women in that situation is that they felt like they already knew what to expect because they had been pregnant before and so, they didn’t feel that they needed prenatal care,” said Howell.

In an effort to solve the lack of testing, the legislature passed a bill last year, requiring emergency rooms at hospitals and other medical facilities admitting pregnant women to examine for syphilis.

“In the last legislative session, it was clarified when testing needs to be done in the third trimester and also that it needs to be done at delivery,” said Howell. “So we can identify the cases and get moms on the medication, get babies on the medication right away. "

Even as cases kept rising, funding and attention shifted to COVID in 2020.

“A number of our disease investigators that were assigned to ASTD and HIV, were reassigned to COVID, at least for a portion of their workweek. We still had a number of cases that were being reported and had to investigate and we also had to balance that with our COVID responsability,” said Howell. “Actually some staff was completely pulled out and so that had a huge impact on the caseload, per disease, per investigator.”

When treating a newborn baby for syphilis, penicillin carries little risk, but delivering it often involves painful procedures. About 7% of babies diagnosed with the disease in recent years have died.

When sores or a rash are present in a newborn, doctors take samples and examine them under a microscope to look for the bacteria. They also test the placenta, umbilical cord, and the newborn’s blood for syphilis. (lumbar puncture) to see if the infection has involved the brain.

Howell says they are now fully staffed and working on a pilot program with the sheriff’s office and the jail’s medical provider.

“Embarking on a project to screen all people with child-bearing capacities so, people born as females for syphilis upon booking in the jail,” said Howell.

This project is being funded by a grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the CDC. It’s expected to start running in May.

Follow-ups are critical when it comes to prevention. You can test for syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases at the health department. For hours and location, click here.

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