Number of Newborns in Mississippi With Syphilis Increased 900%

The number of newborns treated for congenital syphilis, an infection passed from their mothers, has dramatically increased in Mississippi over the past five years. Experts say this may be due to limited access to prenatal care and a lack of insurance.

An analysis of hospital bill data shared with NBC News and collected by Thomas Dobbs, M.D., the medical director for the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Crossroads Clinic in Jackson, reveals that cases of congenital syphilis rose by more than 900% in Mississippi. In 2021, some 102 newborns in the state were treated for the condition, compared to only 10 babies in 2016.

Dobbs said that health care providers "are absolutely horrified."

"Mississippi is experiencing a frightening increase in pregnant women with syphilis and in turn, babies born with syphilis," said Dobbs, who is also a dean of the John D. Bower School of Population Health at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).

Congenital syphilis may have profound implications on a newborn’s health, such as deformed bones, anemia, damaged organs, and brain and nerve problems. In most severe cases, the infection may lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth, according to the CDC.

"Several newborns have died recently due to this entirely preventable problem. Other children have been diagnosed with severe neurological development disorders because of untreated syphilis," Dobbs said in a UMMC statement.

All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis at the first prenatal visit and treated with penicillin right away if they test positive, the CDC said. Mississippi, however, is one of the six states where syphilis screenings in pregnancy are not required by law.

Overall, STDs in the United States are skyrocketing. The preliminary CDC data shows that syphilis cases rose from 101,590 in 2017 to 171,074 in 2021. The same trend is observed in Mississippi, where new syphilis cases nearly tripled from 2013 to 2016.

Charlotte Hobbs, M.D., professor of pediatric infectious diseases at UMMC, said that delayed prenatal care and testing are the main reasons women with syphilis are not getting treatment, followed by delays in accessing antibiotics.

"To combat this public health crisis, our priority must be to engage moms early in pregnancy and ensure testing and treatment. This will require a committed partnership between physicians and clinics, public health, and insurers, primarily Medicaid," she added.

According to the doctors, the key to addressing this crisis is early prenatal care, access to which is limited by the lack of insurance and maternal care deserts,

Dobbs said, "From my discussions with physicians across the state, uninsured pregnant women must pay for care out-of-pocket prior to Medicaid approval. Although Medicaid will reimburse retroactively, most clinics require either payment or proof of insurance. This costly delay often puts women well beyond the first trimester before receiving care."

Children and women in Mississippi aren't the ones impacted. California, Minnesota, and New Mexico have reported increases as well.

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