BY ANNA GORMAN
AND HEIDI DE MARCO
KAISER HEALTH NEWS/TNS
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Neonatologist Gurvir Khurana had only read about it in textbooks. Seeing it in real life has been a shock: Baby after baby born severely anemic, lungs filled with fluid, bodies covered with rashes. Some only lived minutes; others died within days or weeks.
The cause: congenital syphilis.
They are all born to mothers with syphilis. Many of the mothers arrive at the hospital to give birth never having had prenatal care, unaware they have the disease — let alone that they could pass it along to their unborn babies. The infants who survive carry an elevated risk of long-term health problems.
“It’s been an absolute explosion,” said Khurana, who works at four hospitals in California’s Central Valley. “It’s just spreading very, very quickly. Kern County has a huge public health problem on its hands.”
The Central Valley — a vast agricultural and mostly low-income swath of California — has seen an unprecedented spike in congenital syphilis over the last few years. It’s part of an overall rise in syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases across California and the nation.
Health professionals fear rates could rise even further if President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act and people lose access to reproductive health care.
“STD rates aren’t going to just stop,” said Natasha Felkins, a health educator for Planned Parenthood in Bakersfield, the main city in Kern County. “When health coverage goes away or when things are cut, we are going to see numbers increase and that’s going to affect all of us.”
Across the U.S., sexually transmitted diseases are at an all-time high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rate of syphilis among women increased 27 percent from 2014 to 2015, and congenital syphilis increased by 6 percent. Preliminary data show the trend continued into 2016, with syphilis among women rising another 21 percent and congenital syphilis 4 percent.
The rise is worrisome, especially given that syphilis had almost disappeared by about 2000, said Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s division of sexually transmitted disease prevention.
“There was great hope for syphilis elimination in the United States,” Bolan said. “Unfortunately, our national data now show that syphilis is thriving.”
Impact on women
Bolan said CDC officials are closely monitoring the epidemic of syphilis around the nation, urging states to explore the roles of poverty, limited health care access, drugs and incarceration and to address those factors.
They are watching with particular concern the spike in cases among women, and encouraging more testing, treatment and education.
“Rises in women, especially women of reproductive age … are a bellwether for when we are going to start seeing more congenital syphilis,” Bolan said.