Press Room

Health Officials Respond to Alarming Increases in Congenital Syphilis

ARLINGTON, VA (Sept. 25, 2018)—Newborn syphilis cases have more than doubled in the last 4 years, and last year, the United States saw the most cases of congenital syphilis since 1997, according to a new CDC report. Babies born with untreated syphilis can face serious consequences, including an array of neurological and developmental health problems. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and its members are committed to protecting the health of mothers and infants by raising awareness and urging action to address this alarming disease.

Several states are also seeing a rise in congenital syphilis cases. Many women are not receiving timely prenatal care for early detection and treatment, so the increase may be partly because more women of reproductive age are infected with the disease.

“In California, and nationwide, we are seeing a significant and concerning increase in the number of congenital syphilis cases,” says Karen Smith, state public health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health. “It is critical that pregnant women be tested for syphilis at their first prenatal visit, and women at risk for syphilis should receive repeat screening during the third trimester and again at delivery.”

John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, also recognizes the importance of prenatal care for every pregnancy: “We’re partnering with healthcare providers and community organizations to increase awareness about congenital syphilis. Texas, along with other high burden areas, has also convened case review teams to help us better understand what’s leading to an increase in cases, including possible barriers to prenatal care.”

In late 2017, California, Texas, and seven other jurisdictions received grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to strengthen local capacity to address and respond to congenital syphilis. “The data in CDC’s 2017 STD Surveillance Report reiterates the need for continued work on STD prevention,” says Hellerstedt. “It presents a significant challenge, but with support from our partners in healthcare, public health efforts can stem the tide of congenital syphilis.”

“With cuts to public health budgets, it’s no surprise we’re seeing a rise in rates,” says Michael Fraser, CEO of ASTHO. “What we’re hearing from states is that the unfortunate increases in congenital syphilis cases has a lot to do with decreases in funding for the core work for STD prevention. These statistics remind us that we need to sustain funding for public health – we know what we need to do, we just need to have the resources to do it.”


ASTHO is the national nonprofit organization representing the public health agencies of the United States, the U.S. territories and freely associated states, and the District of Columbia, as well as the more than 100,000 public health professionals these agencies employ. ASTHO members, the chief health officials of these jurisdictions, are dedicated to formulating and influencing sound public health policy and to ensuring excellence in public health practice.