The Houston Health Department has reported a syphilis outbreak, with an increase of 128% among women in the city, and a ninefold increase in congenital cases in Houston and the surrounding Harris County area since 2019.
Health officials announced the outbreak in a Thursday news release.
According to the department, new infections rose by 57% from 2019 to 2022. There were 2,905 new infections in 2022, compared to 1,845 new infections in 2019.
There were 674 cases among women in 2022, a steep increase from 295 cases in 2019, according to the release. And there were 151 cases of congenital syphilis in 2021, the latest year for which statistics are available, compared to just 16 cases in 2016.
Congenital syphilis happens when a pregnant person passes the bacterial infection to their baby in the womb. Untreated congenital syphilis can lead to stillbirth or damage the baby’s organs or bones.
“It is crucial for pregnant women to seek prenatal care and syphilis testing to protect themselves from an infection that could result in the deaths of their babies,” said Marlene McNeese Ward, deputy assistant director in the Houston Health department’s Bureau of HIV/STI and Viral Hepatitis Prevention, in the news release. “A pregnant woman needs to get tested for syphilis three times during her pregnancy.”
Pregnant women should be tested for syphilis at their initial prenatal visit, during the third trimester, and at delivery, according to the release.
The health department is waiving all clinical fees for sexually transmitted infections at its health centers, according to the release.
Additionally, the department “will expand the use of its HIV/STD mobile clinic to increase the number of community screening sites and set up in areas considered hot spots, selected from disease monitoring and case management data,” the release said.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection commonly spread through sexual contact. The disease usually starts with a painless sore on the genitals or mouth – direct contact with the sores spreads the infection.
When it’s caught early on, syphilis is easily treatable with antibiotics. But without treatment, the infection can lie dormant in the body for years or even decades before attacking the brain, nerves, eyes, and other organs. It can cause deafness, blindness, and death.
Congenital syphilis has skyrocketed across the US, particularly in the South and Southwest. Infections in newborns have risen about 700% across the country over the past decade, a CDC official previously told CNN. Experts attributed the rise to a combination of factors including lack of public funding for sexual health programs, a shortage of qualified personnel, and uneven coverage for screening by Medicaid.
Because syphilis in its early stages may not have obvious symptoms, pregnant people and their health care providers might not notice it or screen for it at all.