MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With the number of congenital syphilis cases rising in Mississippi, doctors across the Mid-South are expressing their concerns.
Former Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who led the state’s fight against COVID-19, expressed his concerns on Twitter last week, saying “syphilis among newborns should be a thing of the past … but in MS we have seen a >1000% increase since 2016.”
Dobbs blames inadequate pre-natal health care including lack of syphilis testing for the increase. Dr. Steve Threlkeld, Medical Director for Infectious Disease at Baptist Memorial Healthcare, understands Dobb’s outrage.
“I think that’s probably what the frustration was, locally, there. The numbers have been skyrocketing and I think, like so many people, the public health system has been stretched,” he said.
Dr. Threlkeld points to a large number of healthcare workers leaving their jobs following the COVID outbreak. He says there are not enough professionals to follow up with pregnant women who test positive for syphilis.
“This is just one of those examples where we have the data, we know about the cases but you have to have the manpower to diagnose the patients, then do contact tracing and follow up to make sure they’re continuing to come back for treatment,” Threlkeld said.
Dr. Threlkeld says most states suggest or require during pre-natal care a woman be tested for syphilis at least twice. Some states suggest another test when the baby is delivered, particularly for those women who, in fact, are engaging in high-risk behavior.
But Threlkeld stresses the rise in congenital syphilis is not unique to Mississippi.
“Mississippi has led the nation at some points in recent years in both gonorrhea and come close in syphilis as well. But it’s more of a problem, at least the congenital syphilis, particularly in the south and southwestern United States,” he said.
He says if you are pregnant and practice risky sexual behavior, you should be tested.
“You’re not just protecting yourself. you’re protecting your newborn from something that can be a deadly infection,” Threlkeld said.
Dr. Threlkeld says according to the CDC, there were more than 2,000 cases of congenital syphilis in 2020. The number of cases rose to almost 2,700 in 2021.