‘Very alarming’: Cases of congenital syphilis are climbing in Oklahoma

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The numbers of cases of syphilis in Oklahoma and the U.S. have spiked over recent years. Courtesy Thad Zajdowicz
More Oklahoma babies are being born with a disease that is potentially fatal yet easily preventable. 

In the past year, cases of congenital syphilis in Oklahoma — when a mother passes syphilis along to the baby during pregnancy — have nearly doubled. There were 12 cases recorded in 2018 and 23 cases recorded so far this year, continuing a four-year increase of the disease in the state, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. 

Since 2014, the number of cases has grown by 283 percent. 

The increase can be seen across the country. In the U.S., 1,306 infants acquired syphilis from their mothers in 2018, an increase of 40 percent from 2017, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released on Tuesday. Oklahoma ranks 11th in the country for its rate of congenital syphilis. 

Overall in Oklahoma, cases of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, climbed to 1,138 cases, an increase of almost 20 percent, CDC data shows. 

Sally Bouse is the administrative programs manager of prevention and intervention for the Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Service division at the state health department. She said the spike of syphilis cases is concerning. 

“It’s very alarming and it’s happening nationwide,” Bouse said. “It’s not specific to Oklahoma, though in Oklahoma we do have very high rates.”

Bouse said in Oklahoma, pregnant women with syphilis are often hard to identify because they are not accessing health care.

“This is a very difficult subset in these pregnant females,” she said. “We’re just having a very hard time to find them, to find where they are. And when they do show up, it’s too late.”

Bouse said many pregnant women with syphilis are only showing up to hospitals to deliver their babies or when they’re having a problem in their pregnancy, rather than accessing routine prenatal care.

Oklahoma’s uninsured rate is the second highest in the nation and the state is one of 14 that have not expanded their Medicaid programs.

The health department recently created an internal congenital syphilis task force, Bouse said. Someone monitors new cases daily and helps ensure mothers get treated for the disease. 

Congenital syphilis can impact a newborn’s health, causing deformities, low birthweight, and brain and nerve problems. It also can be fatal. The disease can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or death shortly after the birth of a baby. As many as 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from infection, according to the CDC. 

Health officials recommend all pregnant women be tested for syphilis the first time they see their doctor during pregnancy and again in the third trimester. Syphilis can easily be cured with antibiotics. Health departments provide STD testing and antibiotics to treat them, Bouse said.

From 2014 to 2018, Oklahoma saw an 860% increase in the number of primary and secondary syphilis cases among women, according to state health department data. Primary syphilis is the first phase of the disease, and secondary occurs a few weeks later — both stages are highly infectious. 

The recent CDC state-to-state report highlights the “alarming threat” of increased newborns death from syphilis. The disease caused 94 deaths in the U.S. in 2018, a 22 percent increase from 2017. Bouse said the state health department likely won’t have data on newborn health outcomes for Oklahoma until late 2019. 

The CDC report was part of a bigger look into sexually transmitted diseases trends across the country.  In Oklahoma, there was little change in the number of cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea. Cases of chlamydia rose by 1 percent, and cases of gonorrhea fell by almost 1 percent to 8,998 cases. 

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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