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Texas has the nation’s highest rate of babies born with syphilis, an STD that can cause debilitating effects and death if untreated

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Ultrasound is often used for prenatal screening. It's just one of several prenatal screenings available to pregnant women.
Ultrasound is often used for prenatal screening. It's just one of several prenatal screenings available to pregnant women.

Cases of a preventable sexually transmitted disease passed to newborns during pregnancy are increasing in Texas, which already has the nation’s highest rates of congenital syphilis, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 2021 state health department report shows that from 2017 to 2019, Texas saw a 218.1% increase in reported cases.

Congenital syphilis can lead to debilitating and even fatal outcomes in newborns, including liver, bone and neurological damage, skeletal and facial deformities, deafness and blindness. Up to 40% of babies with congenital syphilis are stillborn or die early.

More than 80% of Texas’ cases of congenital syphilis have been reported in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and surrounding areas, according to reporting from Public Health Watch. Between 2016 and 2019, most babies with congenital syphilis were born to Black and Hispanic women.

Early detection and treatment can lessen the chance of a pregnant person passing the disease to their unborn child. Texas law requires expectant mothers get tested for syphilis, HIV and hepatitis B during their first prenatal checkup.

But mothers-to-be who don’t have access to regular prenatal care often remain unaware and untreated, and there are stark disparities in testing and treatment for Black and Hispanic pregnancies.

How early should congenital syphilis be identified and treated to avoid negative outcomes?

How does the disease present in pregnant people and newborns? What are the biggest health risks for babies born with congenital syphilis?

What factors are contributing to the rise of congenital syphilis cases in Texas? Why is the problem worse in Texas than in other states, and in certain Texas cities more than others?

What’s being done to break down structural barriers and improve access to prenatal care, especially in underserved communities, and close gaps in physician knowledge about the importance of syphilis testing and treatment during pregnancy?

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*This interview was recorded on Wednesday, November 3.