A new report from the CDC found that the number of babies contracting syphilis in utero has gone up, by a lot: 261% between 2013 and 2018. It’s an alarming increase, because congenital syphilis (which is what it’s called when the infection is passed from mother to baby during pregnancy) can cause lifelong neurologic problems, and can even lead to miscarriage and infant death.
“People assume every pregnant woman has access to prenatal care and testing, and this report definitely exposes that lack of access,” says Christopher Hall, MD, MS, AAHIVS, infectious disease specialist and Nurx Senior Medical Advisor. “Either these women didn’t get quality prenatal care at all or their doctors didn’t think to test them.”
Why Prenatal Testing is Essential
You see, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women be routinely screened for syphilis, along with HIV and other STIs, but laws enforcing this vary by state. While some states mandate syphilis testing at the beginning of pregnancy, later in pregnancy, and at delivery, others only require it at the beginning of pregnancy, and still other states (as diverse as Hawaii, Mississippi, and Maine) do not mandate prenatal syphilis testing at all.
“Even some medical providers, think of syphilis as a gay men’s disease, and that’s a harmful misconception because it doesn’t discriminate,” says Emily Rymland, DNP, FNP-C, Nurx Clinical Development Manager. “Historically people have focused on screening women for chlamydia and to a lesser extent gonorrhea because they can cause infertility, but this makes it clear that syphilis testing should be standard for women too. If you need to test for one STI you need to test for all of them.”
Symptoms Can Be Vague, Treatment is Easy
You might think that if you had syphilis, you’d know it, but that’s another big myth. Initial symptoms of syphilis include a sore on the vulva, vagina, cervix, anus, rectum, tongue, or lips (wherever syphilis entered the body) along with more non-specific symptoms including swollen glands, a skin rash, fever and muscle aches. “Many people don’t notice the symptoms or mistake it for something else,” says Rymland. “They call syphilis the ‘great imitator’ because the symptoms can imitate other conditions.”
After those early symptoms enters a latency period when there are no symptoms at all — meaning you can have it for years without realizing it. If the infection goes untreated for many years, you can develop late-stage syphilis, a serious condition that involves organ damage, neurological problems and even death.
The good news? Syphilis is totally curable with antibiotics, and the earlier you detect it, the simpler it is to treat. That means you should get a syphilis test (along with tests for HIV and other STIs) at least once a year if you’re sexually active, and more often if you think you might be at risk. “Syphilis testing isn’t expensive or complicated — it should be a part of routine STI testing,” says Dr. Hall.
Have you been tested for syphilis lately? You can complete the process from home using any of the Nurx STI Home Test Kits.
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