Syphilis bacteria, illustration

The rise of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) around the world has been a growing concern. Four curable STIs—chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis—account for over 1 million infections daily among adults aged 15 to 49. Cases of syphilis have been increasing at an alarming rate, according to the World Health Organization.

Alvaro Galvis, MD, PhD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Loma Linda University Children's Hospital, attributes the surge to several factors, including a decline in protected sex practices. "The rise of PrEP for HIV prevention has led many to overlook other STIs, resulting in an increase in unprotected sex," he said. This has led to many syphilis diagnoses in pregnant women and subsequent congenital infections in their babies.

In California, from 2012 to 2021, female early syphilis cases increased by over 1,100%, and congenital syphilis cases increased by 1,500%, from 33 cases in 2012 to 528 cases in 2021, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Congenital syphilis, passed from mother to child during pregnancy, can have devastating effects. "Untreated syphilis in pregnant women can lead to severe outcomes for the baby, including liver, heart, brain, and bone damage," Galvis said. Effective treatment involves administering penicillin to the mother during pregnancy, a protocol often missed due to lack of prenatal care.

"Properly treated babies generally do not suffer long-term consequences, but if not treated correctly, the infection can lead to serious complications such as meningitis or skeletal deformities," he said.

Symptoms of congenital syphilis

  • Stillbirth
  • Swollen spleen, liver, lymph nodes
  • Anemia
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Developmental Delays
  • Paralysis

The rise in congenital syphilis is closely linked to socioeconomic factors. "Lack of prenatal care, often due to lower socio-economic status and associated issues like substance abuse, is a significant contributor. This correlation is evident in the high incidence of congenital syphilis among babies in foster care in San Bernardino and Riverside counties,” Galvis said.

In response to the increase in STI diagnoses, Loma Linda University Children's Hospital has intensified its screening efforts, ensuring that all pregnant women receive syphilis testing.

"Our proactive approach in prenatal care helps us treat mothers early, improving outcomes for their babies," Galvis said.

He emphasizes the need for comprehensive STI education and regular testing, particularly for adolescents and young adults. "Primary care practitioners should routinely check for STIs and encourage retesting with new sexual partners. It's about getting back to basics. Protecting oneself and ensuring early and adequate prenatal care," he said.

For more information, schedule an appointment with your child’s primary care provider today.