SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. - Sonoma County is seeing "alarming" increases in congenital syphilis and is urging pregnant residents to access prenatal care as soon as possible and asking care providers to increase testing for the sexually transmitted disease.
According to a letter to "colleagues" penned by Dr. Kismet Baldwin-Santana, the interim public health officer for the county, California has experienced a steep increase in syphilis among females and in congenital syphilis, or CS, which is when syphilis is passed from a mother to her baby.
If untreated in babies, syphilis can cause organ damage, neurological disorders and even death.
Baldwin-Santana also said that there are "significant" racial disparities among cases of syphilis in Sonoma County, with significantly higher rates of disease among Black/African American and American Indian/Alaskan Native infants than the statewide rate.
In 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a study that said that higher rates of syphilis among certain groups is not due to "differences in sexual behavior" but rather a lack of access to sexual health care.
Prenatal screening is essential, Baldwin-Santana said, because CS can be prevented with timely testing and treatment. But that doesn't just mean seeing an OB-GYN doctor.
"Syphilis testing and treatment must expand beyond prenatal care clinics to other settings serving women at elevated risk for HIV and syphilis," she wrote.
Baldwin-Santana has asked providers in the county to do several things to tackle the problem. First, screen for the syphilis status of all pregnant women that receive care or services in emergency rooms, urgent care clinics, jails, mental health and drug treatment outlets and syringe-service programs.
Outreach should also be had with unsheltered people and street medicine organizations.
The syphilis test for women who are expecting should be taken at least three times during pregnancy, with the first test taken as early as possible, such as the first trimester. The second test should be during the third trimester and the third test at delivery.
Pregnant women with syphilis can be treated with a penicillin regimen, Baldwin-Santana said.
According to data from the California Department of Public Health, in 2018 the state saw a 900 percent rise in babies born with CS compared to 2012. From 2011 to 2020, female early syphilis cases increased over 1,181 percent, DPH officials said.