Washington, DC – Today, CDC released its 2019 STD Surveillance Report, showing that STD rates in the U.S. reached all-time highs for the sixth consecutive year. Even more concerning, the report found that a growing number of babies in the U.S. are dying as a result of syphilis passed from mother to child during pregnancy (congenital syphilis) – all because women are not receiving simple, CDC-recommended testing and treatment.
Congenital syphilis is entirely preventable, but according to CDC’s report, cases of congenital syphilis nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2019. In 2019:
• More than three-fourths (77%) of all cases were due to gaps in testing and treatment during the mother’s prenatal care – either when a mother was tested and diagnosed with syphilis but did not receive treatment, or when the mother did not receive a timely syphilis diagnosis during her pregnancy.
• Nearly two-thirds (65%) of all babies born with congenital syphilis were Black or Hispanic, highlighting the stark disparities in testing and treatment.
This is entirely unacceptable given the dire ramifications of congenital syphilis. As we observe Black Maternal Health Week, we are calling for action to address this crisis and its disparate impact. Forty percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from infection as a newborn. Those that survive can suffer severe, life-long health consequences, including deformed bones, blindness, or deafness.
“Every single case of syphilis in a newborn baby is a heartbreaking symptom of our nation’s chronically underfunded public health system,” said NCSD Executive Director David Harvey. “Congenital syphilis is 100% preventable, and the failure to protect newborns from this disease reflects our failure to invest in public health and to care for our most vulnerable members of society. We can and must do better.”
Last week the President released his FY22 funding request, which includes $8.7 billion for CDC, the largest increase in decades. However, this does not go far enough to curtail decades of crippling funding cuts to federal, state, and local STD programs. These cuts have hampered our ability to respond to increasing numbers of syphilis cases and protect babies from the related consequences. Furthermore, while severe racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic have rightly been highlighted by public health leaders and the media, the reality is that Black Americans have long faced even starker disparities in STDs and HIV. STDs also continue to disproportionately affect Latinx and Indigenous communities, in addition to women, young people, gay and bisexual men, and transgender people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
NCSD calls on the President and Congress to dedicate at least $272.9M to CDC’s Division of STD Prevention (DSTDP) and fully implement the National STI Strategic Plan. In addition, NCSD calls on CDC to launch an urgently needed $20 million initiative to eliminate congenital syphilis, create the first-ever dedicated funding stream to directly support STD clinical services, and expand STD clinic funding to $20 million as part of the federal plan to end the HIV epidemic.
“The worrying trends in congenital syphilis are symptomatic of a raging STD epidemic in this country and a public health care system that hasn’t been given the resources to deal with it,” said Harvey. “Pregnant women going without lifesaving testing and treatment is inexcusable. We will not end congenital syphilis until we address these gaps and improve health equity for all.”
The National Coalition of STD Directors is a national public health membership organization representing health department STD directors, their support staff, and community-based partners across 50 states, seven large cities, and eight U.S. territories. Our mission is to advance effective STD prevention programs and services across the country. NCSD does this as the voice of our membership. We provide leadership, build capacity, convene partners, and advocate. Go to ncsddc.org for more information.