Mississippi has registered an alarming rise in the number of infants being treated for congenital syphilis.
According to hospital billing data shared with NBC News, the number of babies who have been treated for the sexually transmitted disease has increased by more than 900 percent over five years.
Ten newborns that were born in the poorest US state in 2016 received treatment for the disease. In 2021, 102 newborns were treated for the disease, including at least one who died, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health, NBC reported.
Syphilis is a contagious disease that is mostly spread through sex, but babies can also contract the illness from infected mothers. The disease produces an ulcer in the area where it entered the body, which usually appears between 10 and 60 days after infection.
Congenital syphilis can cause a variety of issues in infants, including disfigured bones, severe anemia, enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, brain and nerve problems such as blindness and deafness, meningitis and skin rashes.
Depending on how long a mother has had syphilis and when — or if — they received treatment, the disease can also result in miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births and low birth weight.
“This seems like something that should have happened a hundred years ago, not last year,” Crossroads Clinic medical director Thomas Dobbs said.
“There’s really kind of a shock,” said Dobbs, whose clinic is in the state capital, Jackson.
Healthcare providers “are absolutely horrified” that babies are still being born with congenital syphilis, he added.
“Delayed prenatal care is the primary healthcare risk factor for newborns with syphilis,” Dobbs wrote on Twitter, adding that the disease is an “entirely treatable problem.”
Medical professionals attribute the rising cases of congenital syphilis to inadequate prenatal healthcare — which includes syphilis testing — as well as an understaffed workforce that has been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The numbers have been skyrocketing and I think, like so many people, the public health system has been stretched,” said Steve Threlkeld, the medical director for infectious diseases at Memphis’s Baptist Memorial Healthcare.
“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,” said Threlkeld — whose hospital is just north of Mississippi’s border with Tennessee.
Cases of congenital syphilis across the US have more than tripled in recent years, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
More than 2,000 cases were reported in 2020, the highest number of cases reported in one year since 1994.
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