Last week, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced that syphilis cases in the state increased by 23 percent from 2021 to 2022.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacteria called treponema pallidum. When passed down from mother to child, the infection is referred to as congenital syphilis.
Women and newborn babies in North Carolina are especially impacted by the increase in syphilis cases, according to the NCDHHS.
From 2019 to to 2022, cases among women increased by 133 percent. Last year, there were 837 reported cases among women, and this spike has also caused an increase in congenital syphilis. While there was only one reported case of congenital syphilis in 2012, there were 55 reported cases in the state last year — a 31 percent increase from 2021.
Dr. Arlene Seña, a professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, said the rise of syphilis is an issue not only in North Carolina, but also across the globe. Though she said men have tended to contract the most cases, the number of women infected with syphilis is increasing.
“So the issue is that women who are pregnant, they're either not coming to care for prenatal care until later, and if they have syphilis, of course, there isn't time for appropriate treatment,” Seña said.
In its first stages, syphilis can cause swollen lymph nodes, hair loss and other symptoms. It can also cause further diseases like hepatitis and meningitis.
Pregnant people with syphilis may have a miscarriage or a stillbirth, and some babies with congenital syphilis die shortly after birth. Babies born with this disease may have deformed bones, an enlarged liver or spleen, nervous system problems and other health issues.
Out of the 55 reported cases of congenital syphilis in North Carolina in 2022, six originated in Orange, Chatham, Durham and Wake counties, Seña said.