Syphilis cases surge in NC, prompting healthcare leaders to sound the alarm: 'It's frustrating'

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Friday, November 17, 2023
Healthcare leaders sounding the alarm as Syphilis cases surge in NC
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The CDC reported that 3,761 babies were born with syphilis in 2022.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Neonatologist Dr. Claudia Cadet is on the frontlines at Wake Med fighting for and caring for sick newborns. The sickness lately--- syphilis.

"Just last month, we said we had a little 'Syphilis Ward'," said Cadet. "We had a handful being treated at the same time, like more than three at the same time. So, we've definitely had several every month."

Babies born with syphilis, a bacteria, contract it from their mothers. Already this year, North Carolina has seen five stillbirths and neonatal deaths due to congenital syphilis.

"We've just seen more babies, both in our newborn nursery and in the intensive care unit requiring treatment for undiagnosed... for moms who are not diagnosed with syphilis... so then they pass it on to their newborns. And the most dangerous part is that often if the newborns aren't tested, they're going to be asymptomatic," said Dr. Cadet.

RELATED: 5 stillbirth and neonatal deaths linked to congenital syphilis, NCDHHS says

The trend is similar to what the CDC reported nationally. The agency reported that 3,761 babies were born with syphilis last year. 10 years ago, that number was 335.

"I think it's frustrating to all of us. I think none of us wants these outcomes. I think the pandemic told us that we were under-resourcing public health," said Erika Samoff, STD Surveillance Manager with the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the health alert DHHS sent to doctors earlier this month, the department identified several missed opportunities to prevent infections.

"Sometimes it's the provider not doing the testing, not being aware they need to do the testing, and then that case slips through," said Samoff.

In a review of the 2022 congenital syphilis cases identified, 53% of mothers of babies born with syphilis had little to no prenatal care.

"I almost want to say if you were to poll those 53%, did they have access to equitable care? Did they have access to primary care or to an OBGYN and to be able to get those screenings?" said Internal Medicine Doctor Brian Shackleford.

He said he's seeing more cases of syphilis this year than in the last six years of his practice. There were two cases just this week. Access to care is one issue, but Shackleford believes inadequate treatment of the mother's infection is problematic.

"A lot of times, even with screening you hear about gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, you really haven't heard the kind of thrust to get syphilis testing," he said.

The state is urging clinicians like Shackleford to screen pregnant women three times during their pregnancy because data reveals that 86 % of syphilis infections reported in pregnant women in the state were asymptomatic at the time they were diagnosed.

"Since we're in a high-risk area, it's supposed to be that first trimester, the beginning of the third trimester, as well as at the time of birth, which if you're not getting your maternal care, some of those latter testing and screenings can be missed," Shackleford.