PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On the heels of a CNN report on the violent rise of congenital syphilis in newborns, health officials in the region say they are seeing a similar, troubling trend in the Pacific Northwest.
Numbers provided to KOIN 6 News by the Oregon Health Authority show congenital syphilis cases in the state have increased significantly over the last decade. OHA saw a total of 133 cases of CS from 2014 to 2022. The agency has seen 27 cases so far in 2023.
After seeing no more than two congenital syphilis cases per year, Washington state health officials say they began to see a similar rise about a decade ago. The Washington State Department of Health told KOIN 6 they have already had 53 cases in 2023.
CNN’s reporting says that the number of children born with syphilis in 2022 was up 32% year-to-year and 1000% over the 10-year period, ending that year.
According to OHA, more than 4 out of 10 pregnant people who have syphilis do not get any treatment or timely treatment for syphilis. Untested and untreated, the disease can pass to an unborn child. Congenital syphilis can cause miscarriages, stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, and infant death.
“Syphilis in pregnant persons is easy to detect via a blood test and simple to treat with three weekly shots of penicillin,” said Doctor Dawn Nolt, a Professor of Pediatrics at OHSU.
According to OHA, 10% of Oregon’s congenital syphilis cases result in stillbirths or infant death.
Dr. Nolt says the rise seen in Oregon can be blamed, at least partly, on one of the things that is causing the rise nationwide: a lack of prenatal care.
“Hospitals around the country are struggling with maternity unit closures, recruitment, and staffing,” she said. “Recent studies have found that millions of reproductive-aged individuals are vulnerable to poor health outcomes due to a lack of access to reproductive healthcare services.”
Like many other systemic issues, the most vulnerable populations suffer more from the congenital syphilis spike.
According to OHA, congenital syphilis disproportionately affects pregnant people of color and pregnant people who are experiencing housing instability, among other societal factors.
“It is critical to understand that higher CS rates are not caused by race or ethnicity, but by intersecting impacts of systemic racism, poverty, houselessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and stigma.,” OHA said in a statement.
Dr. Nolt says not addressing those systemic issues will likely mean the rates of congenital syphilis will keep going up.
“If people are not tested, and if infected pregnant persons are not treated, the numbers of babies infected with syphilis will continue to rise,” she said.
This article has been updated to reflect a clarification of data from the Oregon Health Authority.