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Parkland Hospital Official Believes Education Can Stop Surge In Congenital Syphilis

Doctor testing for HIV, Hepatitis B & C, and for syphilis.

A new state law that took effect in September requires health providers to perform additional testing for congenital syphilis, but a county hospital official says education is key to effectively addressing the surge in cases.

There is a nationwide surge in cases of congenital syphilis. Texas alone had a sharp increase in reports of infections passed from mother to child – nearly doubling from 164 in 2017 to 367 last year.

To bring the surge under control, healthcare providers now have to test three times for the disease: at the first prenatal exam, during the third trimester and at delivery.

Dr. Joseph Chang, Senior Vice President and Associate Chief Medical Officer of Parkland Hospital System, explains why Parkland expanded its testing well ahead of the new law.


Dangers of syphilis for a baby: “The stillborn rate is actually fairly high for untreated mothers. Things like deformities or blindness, severe heart problems, you can see that as evidence right away. But issues with brain development, you won't know until there's slow cognitive development for the baby. Those are things that sometimes can take months, years to show up.”

Why early testing is important: "Syphilis is a very interesting disease. When an initial infection occurs, you get a little sore on the genital area, but that goes away on its own. And then the syphilis can be what we call latent. So it enters a period where it just sits in your body and you have no idea. There are no symptoms whatsoever."

The most effective step to address congenital syphilis after expanded testing: "Prevention. The way to prevent these issues from occurring is to prevent the moms from getting syphilis to begin with. Resources need to be put into education of our children – middle school, certainly by high school – that sexually transmitted diseases aren't just something of the past. This is something that is of the present. And it will be in the future if we don't get a hold of it."


A Devastating Surge in Congenital Syphilis: How Can We Stop It?

Congenital Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet

Congenital Syphillis

Maldives eliminates mother-to-child transmission of HIV, Syphilis

WHO Sexual and Reproductive Health

Congenital Syphilis Health Advisory - 10/03/19

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.