Congenital Syphilis is rising at an alarming rate in California

Health officials across the state are sounding the alarm about a rise in congenital syphilis cases. Congenital syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection found in pregnant women and officials say women who are unhoused are most at risk. 

Syphilis cases have continued to rise over the last seven years and officials say informing people about the spread is crucial to protecting women and their babies.  

"The people who are getting syphilis are often experiencing things like homelessness or have a history of incarceration or substance abuse," said Dr. Ina Park, a Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine.  

Dr. Park, also an author of the 2021 CDC S.T.I. Treatment Guidelines, says nationally, there's been a 50% increase of syphilis in pregnant women over the last year. Symptoms include red skin sores, swollen lymph nodes and hair loss.   

"The slope at which cases are increasing is really concerning. We had over 200 babies that were either born still born at birth or died in the first 30 days of life and that should never happen," Park said.   

California has the 6th highest rate of congenital syphilis in the country, with 446 cases as of 2019. Public health officials in Fresno County are also seeing its highest rates of infection, and they’re ramping up outreach to those at risk, so they can get help.  

"Here we are in 2022, and we still have pregnant women testing positive for syphilis. We still have the challenges of locating some pregnant women because of their homelessness and other barriers. So, if we can’t find them before they deliver and get them adequately treated, that’s a new congenital syphilis case," said Jena Adams, Supervising Communicable Disease Specialist with the Fresno County Dept. of Public Health.     

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Adams says Latina and Black women are most at risk for congenital syphilis in Fresno County. Syphilis is treated with penicillin, a commonly used treatment, but Adams says health officials can’t explain why this particular disease continues to spread.  

"Those problems have existed for quite a while, so we’re not quite sure of why the resurgence in syphilis," Adams said.   

Dr. Park says even though we see higher rates of syphilis among pregnant women, anyone can contract the disease. She says treatment is inexpensive and women and men should request testing from their doctor.