Syphilis cases increasing in California women and newborns

Part of a nationwide trend, cases of syphilis among women and newborns increased in the last two years in California and Los Angeles County, state officials said Monday.

The annual number of reported early cases of the sexually transmitted disease among women rose from 248 to 594 from 2012 to 2014.

In the same period, cases of congenital syphilis -- in which a mother infects her child during pregnancy -- surged in the state, with annual cases in newborns rising from 30 to 100.

"The increase in congenital syphilis is particularly concerning," California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Karen Smith said in a statement. "It is a needless tragedy that can be prevented with good prenatal care and timely and effective treatment."

Most of the congenital cases occurred in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley, according to department officials. Stillbirths caused by syphilis also rose from one case in 2012 to six in 2014.

Thirty-one of the state's 100 cases of congenital syphilis last year were in Los Angeles County, said Dr. Susie Baldwin, sexually transmitted disease controller for the county's Department of Public Health.

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FOR THE RECORD

July 14, 1:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified Dr. Susie Baldwin as head of the health assessment unit of the county's Department of Public Health. 

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Baldwin said that most of those women didn't have adequate access to medical care. Ten of them were foreign nationals who arrived in the county late in their pregnancies, so little is known about their prenatal care, she said.

She said her department is preparing a syphilis prevention and treatment strategy that will probably be presented to the Board of Supervisors this month. She said it will ensure that providers know how and when to properly screen for and treat syphilis.

Baldwin said that though the "syphilis epidemic nationwide is presenting real challenges," she thinks it will be easier to tackle rates of congenital syphilis. Already, the number of congenital cases is on track to be lower this year than last, she said.

"I would call the congenital syphilis problem more of an outbreak and more limited, and I believe that we'll be able to reverse it in a more timely way," she said.

In 2013, California's syphilis rate was already second highest in the nation, after Georgia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein said in an interview that there hasn't been enough attention or funding given to fighting the rise in cases of the sexually transmitted disease.

"This chicken coming home to roost is not a surprise," he said.

Nationally, there was an 11% increase in primary and secondary cases between 2012 and 2013, with 75% of them reported among gay men, according to the CDC.

"We should look at syphilis and STDs as a crisis," Weinstein said.

His organization has sponsored billboard campaigns raising awareness about syphilis, including one called "Syphilis Explosion," with an image of a volcano erupting, and another warning of possible blindness.

He cited a recent rise in cases of ocular syphilis on the West Coast, which can be a complication of syphilis that causes permanent eye damage.

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