DOTHAN, Ala. (WDHN) — A disease is on the rise in Alabama, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, and it could cause severe problems for anyone expecting a baby.
More babies across America are being born with congenital syphilis (CS), having been infected by their mothers who had the disease.
Alabama has seen an increase in reported syphilis cases over the last few years. In 2019, the number of primary and secondary syphilis cases, the first stage of infection, was at 603, 138 more than 2018.
Reports for the other stages of syphilis infection were also on the rise, as seen in data cataloged by the ADPH. While there was a drop in 2015, the cases have been higher since then.
While syphilis can gradually cause harm to adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says CS can cause life-threatening and permanent consequences for babies born with the disease.
Pregnant women with syphilis can face low birth weights, premature labor, miscarriages, stillbirths, and even have their babies die shortly after birth. Around 40 percent of children born to untreated mothers are stillborn or die as newborns.
If the baby survives the pregnancy and has CS, they have symptoms that can cause death or disability soon after birth.
- Deformed bones,
- Severe anemia (low blood count)
- Enlarged liver and spleen
- Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Brain and nerve problems, like blindness or deafness,
- Skin rashes
Some children do not present symptoms at birth but instead have problems weeks or years later. In some cases, these children can be mentally handicapped or have seizures due to infection.
The infection rate per 100,000 live births more than doubled from 2014 to 2018 in Alabama, increasing from a rate of 5 to 11.8.
What does syphilis in adults look like?
Syphilis comes in four stages, which can last several decades before killing someone.
- Primary Stage — Marked by a small, round, and painless sores that appears at the location of infection. They are usually unnoticed and heal in three to six weeks whether the infection is treated or not. Some cases involve one or multiple sores.
- Secondary Stage — Characterized by rashes and/or mucous membrane lesions that can be in someone’s mouth, vagina or anus. The rash can begin in one or more areas while the primary stage sore is healing. The rash can be rough, red, or reddish-brown spots on the palms and soles of the feet. During this stage, someone can have a fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. Eventually, symptoms will go away with or without treatment. Treatment is still needed to prevent further infection, though.
- The Latent Stage — You will not have symptoms during this time, but syphilis can still last for years in your body without treatment.
- Tertiary Stage — Most untreated people do not get to this stage, but if you do, you can begin seeing damage to your cardiovascular system, brain, and peripheral nervous system. This stage could also do fatal damage to your organs, killing you in the process. This stage happens 10 to 30 years after infection.
Once syphilis gets to the brain, it can cause severe headaches, difficulty moving, paralysis, numbness, and even dementia. In this case, it is called neurosyphilis.
Ocular syphilis is when the disease reaches your eyes and can cause vision changes and even blindness.
In the Southeastern District, which comprises much of the Wiregrass, only seven primary and secondary cases were reported between January and March. Six people reached the early latent stage and another eight reached the late latent stage during this time period.
For a county-by-county breakdown, follow this link to the ADPH’s statistics page.
What Should I Do to Keep Myself and My Baby Safe?
First and foremost, you must get a blood test to check for the disease if you believe you are at risk. You should get one at your first prenatal visit if you are pregnant.
If you test positive, you and your sex partner must get treatment right away. The treatment is a round of antibiotics followed by another test after a year to see if it is working.
Babies must be tested as soon as possible to stop further damage. A child may get antibiotics for 10 days in a hospital or just one shot to kill the disease.
A followup is also needed for the baby. As an added note, you can always get the disease again after being cured.
Alabama’s health departments operate free testing for STDs. For more information, check out the ADPH’s website.