Topic: A sexually transmitted disease is killing Texas babies
As congenital syphilis cases soar in the state, especially among infants of color, health officials wonder what it will take to get the public’s attention.
In April, health officials in Houston issued an urgent notice about rising cases of congenital syphilis, imploring pregnant women to get tested and treated for a condition that can kill or debilitate infants. New county data showed it had caused at least 14 fetal deaths in 2020, marking a 250% increase over the year before.
Congenital syphilis, which occurs when the sexually transmitted disease is passed from woman to fetus and is avoidable if caught and treated in time, had been steadily ticking upward in the city, tracking rising syphilis infections among women. More babies are born with the condition in the Houston area than anywhere else in Texas, which has the nation’s highest rate of congenital syphilis.
“Nobody’s making a big enough deal about this,” said Dr. Irene Stafford, an OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine specialist in Houston. “What will it take? Where is the funding, where are the big media campaigns? … We have babies dying from something 100% preventable, so where is the big response?”
Statewide, 528 cases of congenital syphilis were reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services in 2019 — the latest data available — up from 367 in 2018, when Texas accounted for more than a quarter of cases nationwide. The state’s congenital syphilis rate — the number of cases per 100,000 live births — ranked worst in the country for two years running and is far above the national average. More than 80% of Texas cases have been reported in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and surrounding areas.
Data provided to Public Health Watch via an open-records request show that between 2016 and 2019, most Texas babies with congenital syphilis were born to Black and Hispanic women, including almost nine of every 10 cases in 2018. In the Houston area, every baby who died from congenital syphilis in the last two years was either Black or Hispanic.
In emails, the state health department said it was addressing the problem by educating physicians and patients and improving data reporting and collection. It pointed to enhanced surveillance and better capacity to identify congenital syphilis as reasons for Texas’ worst-in-the-nation ranking. But the agency’s own 2021 report said the state is experiencing “true increases in both syphilis and congenital syphilis cases.”
Many factors are likely colliding to drive up syphilis among Texas women – and, in turn, congenital syphilis, experts say. Among them are inadequate sexual health education, rising addiction, lack of access to family planning services and chronically underfunded STD prevention programs. The condition’s early detection and treatment also hinge on larger inequities, such as who has health insurance and timely access to care. (Texas has the country’s worst uninsured rate, and the latest data show about one in four Texas women of reproductive age have no health coverage.)
Topic Discussed: A sexually transmitted disease is killing Texas babies