Cases of syphilis on the rise among women and babies in Arizona

The state health department is looking into a new outbreak of syphilis involving women and babies.
Published: Apr. 13, 2023 at 6:05 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Arizona is part of a concerning trend nationwide involving STDs. The state health department is looking into a new outbreak of syphilis involving women and babies. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection, or STI, typically spread through skin-to-skin contact and usually during sex. Cases of syphilis have reached the highest level since 1950, according to the CDC, and Arizona has the fifth highest rate in the country.

Maricopa County Department of Public Health often tracks some of the most serious conditions. “What we’ve seen over the last five to six years, including the years of COVID, is a dramatic increase in some of our sexually transmitted infections, but specifically syphilis, said Dr. Melanie Taylor, a medical epidemiologist with the county.

Dr. Nelson Nicolasora has seen the rise in cases firsthand. “After I moved here to Phoenix in 2019, I saw a significant change,” he said. The population most affected right now are women and babies. “We’ve seen a larger increase in female adult cases as compared to males. We know that translates to an increase in congenital syphilis when those women are pregnant and that is in fact what we’ve seen,” Taylor said.

Cases of congenital syphilis happen when a baby is born with the infection after the mother passes it on during pregnancy. Arizona law requires testing for STIs and syphilis during the first prenatal doctor visit. “It looks as if there has been a dramatic decline in access and uptake to prenatal care among pregnant women. We’ve also seen increasing numbers in women reporting drug use,” she said.

The number of babies born with syphilis doubled each year between 2016 and 2019, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. “Those babies have a very high fatality rate of about the 200 of them last year. Unfortunately there were 21 that died,” said Dr. Greg Marchand, an OB-GYN.

Doctors use antibiotics to treat the infection. Going without treatment can damage your brain, nerves, eyes, blood vessels, bones, and joints. Syphilis in pregnant women can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and even infant death.

Medical professionals all agree using protection, reducing sexual partners and getting tested for STIs are the best ways to protect yourself. For information testing in Maricopa County, visit here.