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Protecting Newborns From Syphilis

Newborn syphilis cases have increased dramatically in the last few years.

According to a recent report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of newborn syphilis more than doubled in the United States from 2013 to 2017, resulting in the highest number of recorded cases in 20 years.

The consequences of syphilis in newborns can be devastating. Fortunately, if a pregnant woman with syphilis gets treated right away, she can help protect her developing baby and increase the likelihood of a healthy outcome.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD, also known as a sexually transmitted infection, or STI), caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is spread primarily by sexual or skin-to-skin contact with a syphilitic sore, called a chancre. A chancre may be painless and unnoticeable, and people often are unaware that they are infected. If left untreated over time, syphilis infection in adults can ultimately damage their eyes, heart, bones, and central nervous system, including the brain.

From Health Edco®, our Sexually Transmitted Diseases Flip Chart
emphasizes STD testing at the first prenatal visit.

What Is Congenital Syphilis?

Congenital syphilis occurs when newborns contract the infection from their mothers. Most cases of congenital syphilis occur when the disease passes from a mother to her developing baby through the placenta. A baby can also contract syphilis during a vaginal birth if the baby comes into contact with a syphilitic sore.

What Problems Can Syphilis Cause in Babies?

Almost half of infants who contract syphilis while in the womb die either shortly before or shortly after birth. Babies may also have a low birthweight. Infants with congenital syphilis may not show any signs at birth, but, if left untreated, they may develop serious problems as they get older, including:

  • Skin rashes

  • Jaundice

  • Anemia

  • Meningitis

  • Enlarged liver or spleen

  • Joint problems

  • Malformation of the nose or teeth

  • Bone problems

  • Problems with the brain and nerves, including blindness and deafness

Babies who are born with congenital syphilis should receive immediate treatment with antibiotics.

Our Hazards During Pregnancy Folding Display
discusses the risks posed by STDs during Pregnancy.

How Can Syphilis in Newborns Be Prevented?

All pregnant women should be screened for syphilis at their first prenatal visit. Pregnant women who live in areas where syphilis is prevalent, who were not tested earlier in their pregnancy, or who tested positive for syphilis during their first trimester should be tested again early in their third trimester. Pregnant women should talk with their healthcare professionals about syphilis testing and whether their baby should be tested at birth.

Women who test positive for syphilis during pregnancy should receive immediate treatment. Early treatment is best to help protect mothers and their babies.

Expectant parents can also decrease their baby’s risk of congenital syphilis by reducing their own risk of syphilis infection before or during pregnancy. Ways to decrease the risk of contracting syphilis include being in a monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis and is free from the infection. Using latex condoms every time during sex can also decrease the likelihood of syphilis transmission.

Women who are pregnant should keep all prenatal visits. To protect their own health and the health of their developing babies, pregnant women should talk openly and honestly with their healthcare professionals about their risk for syphilis, syphilis testing, and the potential need for treatment.

©2018 Childbirth Graphics®