LA County health officials responding to rise in congenital syphilis


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One day after state officials singled out Los Angeles County as one of the areas in the state experiencing a rise in the number of pregnant women passing on syphilis to their babies in utero, county officials say they are stepping up their educational outreach to health care workers and patients. 

Last year, 31 babies were born in L.A. County with "probable congenital syphyilis" – meaning their mothers had syphilis that either was not properly treated during pregnancy or was treated too late to fully protect the fetus. That's a sharp increase from the eight in 2013, and the most since there were 32 in 2005, according to county data.

Left untreated, congenital syphilis can have a devastating impact on newborns, notes Dr. Susie Baldwin, sexually transmitted disease controller at the L.A. County Department of Public Health's HIV and STD programs. 

"Babies can be born with birth defects of their bones, skin lesions, scarring, they can have defects that can cause them to be blind or deaf," says Baldwin.

And they can die in utero, she adds. One infected L.A. County mother gave birth last year to a stillborn baby, says Baldwin, adding that all of the other babies, including 12 more diagnosed this year with probable congenital syphilis, have so far shown no symptoms. 

Health experts say an infected expectant mother must receive penicillin at least one month before giving birth to avoid passing syphilis on to her baby. 

Baldwin says early and regular prenatal care is essential to protecting newborns, adding that L.A. County is including that message in a widespread education campaign for health care workers it plans to launch next month.

Previously the county had focused its outreach and education on health care providers who have dealt with cases of probable congenital syphilis, but Baldwin says now it will expand the effort to educate all providers who treat women of reproductive age and pregnant women.

The county will also intensify its outreach to those providers seeing a greater number of pregnant women with syphilis, she adds.

Along with the increase in syphilis cases, gonorrhea and chlamydia have also been on the rise in L.A. County, statewide and across the U.S., points out Baldwin.

The public health department will expand its follow-up investigations of people infected with STD's, says Baldwin, to identify and treat sexual partners.  And she says the county will assign a public health nurse to follow pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis. 

While the problem of congenital syphilis is alarming, the overwhelming majority of syphilis cases occur among men, county statistics show. Last year there were a total of 450 cases among women, and more than 3,300 among men.