ST. LOUIS, MO – (June 29, 2022). A recent health update from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services noted an alarming increase of syphilis in the state, including congenital syphilis. From 2015 to 2021, the number of syphilis cases in Missouri increased by 259 percent. In 2021, there were 63 congenital syphilis cases reported in Missouri, the highest since 1994.
Over the last five years, the St. Louis region has also seen a sharp increase in cases of syphilis and specifically congenital syphilis, which can have devastating effects on newborns. In 2021, there were 11 cases of congenital syphilis in St. Louis County and 11 cases in St. Louis City. In 2017, the county had only three cases, and the city had one case – meaning that cases are up 233 percent in the county and 1000 percent in the city in only four years.
This correlates with an increase in syphilis cases in women of childbearing age. In the county, 69 cases of early syphilis have been diagnosed in women under 40 years of age in 2021, an increase of 23 percent from 2020 and a 165 percent from 2017. There were 58 cases of early syphilis in females under age 40 in St. Louis City in the year 2021 which is 287 percent increase compared to 15 cases in 2017.
St. Louis residents are urged to get tested for syphilis if they are sexually active and especially if they are considering pregnancy. Syphilis testing and treatment are available for free or at low cost in various locations, including the North Central Community Health Center at 4000 Jennings Station Road in Pine Lawn and the Health Stop Testing and Referral Center at 1520 Market St. in St. Louis.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection, or STI, that can have serious complications if left untreated and it spreads to the brain or the eyes. While syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics, many cases go undiagnosed and untreated. Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant person with untreated syphilis passes the infection on to their baby during pregnancy – causing miscarriages, premature births, stillbirths or death of newborn babies. Babies born with congenital syphilis can experience serious health complications, including physical and neurological disabilities.
“A single case of congenital syphilis is heartbreaking because it is completely preventable,” said Dr. Faisal Khan, Acting Director of the Saint Louis County Department of Public Health. “Given the high rates of syphilis in the Saint Louis region, I urge all those who are pregnant or considering pregnancy to get themselves and their partners tested immediately.”
“Our goal is to have zero new cases of congenital syphilis in St. Louis – not even one,” said Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, the Director of the St. Louis City Department of Health. “The rates of syphilis among women of childbearing age are rising faster than any other group – and this has led to the unfortunate rise in congenital syphilis as well. We are committed to working with our public health and healthcare partners across the region to increase knowledge, screening, and treatment of syphilis to eliminate congenital syphilis.”
To respond to this crisis, the local public health departments are taking evidence-based actions. The departments are engaging with local health partners to form a congenital syphilis review board that will examine every case and determine opportunities to prevent future cases of syphilis infection in utero and neonatal infections. They also are ramping up communications efforts aimed at young people, local clinicians and community groups to increase knowledge of syphilis and how to treat it. Finally, they are working with the state to increase capacity to investigate cases of STIs, including syphilis, in order to reduce transmission through prompt testing, treatment and outreach to sexual partners.
Every instance of congenital syphilis is preventable through screening and treatment of syphilis during pregnancy. Pregnant women should be tested for syphilis during the first trimester, and then retested for syphilis at 28 weeks’ gestation and at delivery if the mother lives in a community with high syphilis rates or is at risk for syphilis acquisition during pregnancy (e.g., misusing drugs, having an STI during pregnancy, having multiple sex partners, having a new sex partner, or having a sex partner with an STI). The St. Louis region is a community with high syphilis rates. Therefore, per the CDC&#’;s Treatment Guidelines, all clinicians who treat pregnant people should screen their patients for syphilis during the first trimester, at 28 weeks gestation of their pregnancy and at delivery.
For information about the Health Stop, visit STI://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/health/communicable-disease/health-stop-testing-referral-center.cfm or call 314-657-1584.
For information about the Saint Louis County Sexual Health Clinic, visit https://https-stlouiscountymo.gov/st-county-departments/public-health/north-central-community-health-center/ or call 314-615-9736.
Pubic Information Officer
Office Phone: (314) 657-1568
Department of Health
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