(WREG) – With the number of congenital syphilis cases rising in Mississippi, doctors across the Mid-South are expressing their concerns.
Former Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who led the state’s fight against COVID-19, expressed his concerns on Twitter last week, saying “syphilis among newborns should be a thing of the past … but in MS we have seen a >1000% increase since 2016.”
In another tweet, Dobbs said about 40% of expecting mothers who contract syphilis during pregnancy suffer miscarriages.
“Several MS newborns have died recently due to this entirely treatable problem,” he added.
Dobbs blames inadequate pre-natal health care, including lack of syphilis testing, for the increase. Dr. Steve Threlkeld, Medical Director for Infectious Disease at Baptist Memorial Healthcare in Memphis, Tennessee, understands Dobb’s outrage.
“I think that’s probably what the frustration was, locally, there. The numbers have been skyrocketing and I think, like so many people, the public health system has been stretched,” he said.
Dr. Threlkeld points to a large number of healthcare workers leaving their jobs following the COVID outbreak. He says there are not enough professionals to follow up with pregnant women who test positive for syphilis.
“This is just one of those examples where we have the data, we know about the cases but you have to have the manpower to diagnose the patients, then do contact tracing and follow up to make sure they’re continuing to come back for treatment,” Threlkeld said.
Dr. Threlkeld says most states suggest or require syphilis testing at least twice during prenatal care. Some states suggest another test when the baby is delivered, particularly for women engaging in high-risk behavior.
But Threlkeld stresses the rise in congenital syphilis is not unique to Mississippi.
“Mississippi has led the nation at some points in recent years in both gonorrhea and come close in syphilis as well. But it’s more of a problem, at least congenital syphilis, particularly in the South and southwestern United States,” he said.
Threlkeld added that anyone who is pregnant, and engages in risky sexual behavior, should be tested.
“You’re not just protecting yourself. You’re protecting your newborn from something that can be a deadly infection,” Threlkeld said.
According to the CDC, there were more than 2,000 cases of congenital syphilis in 2020. The number of cases rose to almost 2,700 in 2021, Threlkeld said.
Congenital syphilis has a number of possible adverse health effects for pregnant women and fetuses, such as miscarriage or stillbirth. Newborns could also suffer brain issues, meningitis, deformed bones or even death, according to the CDC.