PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – The number of syphilis cases is skyrocketing in Virginia and so is the number of babies being born with it. The Virginia Department of Health reported 20 cases of congenital syphilis last year, the highest number in more than three decades.
Director STD Prevention and Surveillance for the Virginia Department of Health, Oana Vasiliu, told WAVY that syphilis rates among women in Virginia have increased 159% from 2013 to 2021 which is driving the increase in cases among newborns.
Up to 40% of babies born to women with untreated syphilis are stillborn or die from the infection. Other babies born with congenital syphilis can have deformed bones, an enlarged liver, blindness or deafness.
“STI testing, including syphilis testing, is part of prenatal screening however the issue that we’re seeing is that …. many women receive late prenatal care, or enter prenatal care late, or have no prenatal care at all,” Vasiliu said.
Health experts believe this is due to a lack of access to health care, fueled by poverty.
Vasiliu also noted a decrease in condom use and an increase in drug use, which can lead to riskier sex practices. There’s also the COVID factor.
“The public health workforce in Virginia had to pivot and address the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
VDH is now refocusing on social media campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of STI testing.
“It’s really important to diagnose timely and treat not only someone who is infected with an STI but also their partners to help prevent further transmission,” Visiliu told WAVY.
Testing is free at local public health departments and may prevent a lifetime of suffering.
Syphilis often has no symptoms or mild ones so experts say its important to get tested as soon as you know you’re pregnant.
This crisis is not confined to Virginia, The US Center for disease control reports about a 700% increase in congenital syphilis cases over the past decade.