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Federal HHS leader Rachel Levine visits Dallas as syphilis rates rise

Admiral Rachel Levine and Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council president Stephen Love pose next to a window in the hallway of a hospital
Elena Rivera
Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Rachel Levine visits Parkland Health to discuss rates of congenital syphilis in Texas, alongside Stephen Love, the president of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Hospital Council.

As syphilis rates surge nationally and in North Texas, federal and local health officials visited Parkland Health in Dallas on Thursday to discuss community outreach and treatment for the disease.

Adm. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said syphilis has “increased dramatically.”

“This is a treatable bacterial illness,” she said. “We need from a public health point of view, locally, statewide, and federally, to be addressing this issue.”

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed national syphilis rates have risen 80% since 2018. That includes rates of congenital syphilis, where a person with syphilis passes it on to their baby during pregnancy.

Texas had the fourth worst rate of congenital syphilis in the country in 2022, behind New Mexico, South Dakota and Arizona. The state had a rate of 246.8 per 100,000 live births.

HHS is holding engagement events in states hit hard by the epidemic.

“We really try to understand what things are like on the ground, and also then to give them encouragement and support and ask how we at the federal government can help them,” Levine said.

When left untreated, syphilis can impact people’s vision, muscle strength, memory and hearing. When pregnant people aren’t treated for syphilis, said Levine, it can cause birth complications, like miscarriage or infant death.

“We need to make sure that the medical community is educated about syphilis, and that we’re doing the prevention efforts, testing and treatment effort that is required,” she said.

Rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis also disproportionately impact Black people. According to the CDC, “In 2022, 31.1% of all cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and…syphilis were among non-Hispanic Black or African American persons, even though they made up only 12.6% of the US population.”

Emily Adhikari, the medical director of perinatal infectious diseases at Parkland Health, said reducing rates of syphilis transmission starts with outreach.

“People I have heard from informally say, ‘Syphilis, is that still a problem?,’ and it is a huge public health problem,” she said. “But the awareness is not there, despite the past years where we in health care are all very aware of it.”

Pregnant patients who have syphilis and received limited prenatal care have “the worst outcomes in a post-natal period,” said Adhikari.

“But by then it’s too late for congenital syphilis, it’s already happened,” she said. “So how do we get those patients and find them where they’re at?”

Adhikari said health leaders in Texas need to prioritize testing and treatment for syphilis.

“It is killing babies in Texas,” she said. “The attention needs to be there. Otherwise, we won't fix it.”

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.