The Kenai Public Health Center is seen on Feb. 6, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai Public Health Center is seen on Feb. 6, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Health department: Congenital syphilis increased ‘dramatically’ over past 5 years

The condition occurs when the bacteria that causes syphilis is transmitted from a pregnant person to a developing fetus

The rate of congenital syphilis cases in Alaska has “increased dramatically” over the last five years, according to an Epidemiology Bulletin published by the State Department of Health on Tuesday.

Congenital syphilis is a “preventable health event” that occurs when the bacteria that causes syphilis is transmitted from a pregnant person to a developing fetus, according to the bulletin. The condition can cause physical or mental disability and death.

The bulletin says that the Section of Epidemiology identified 26 cases of congenital syphilis linked to an Alaska birth certificate in the last five years.

The rate of cases of congenital syphilis increased over that period from one per year in 2018 to 12 in 2022. The incidence rate increased from 54 per 100,000 live births to 119 per 100,000 live births.

The mothers were aged between 16 and 37 years old. The majority, 85%, were Anchorage residents. Fifty-eight percent were identified only as Alaska Native or American Indian on the infant’s birth certificate. Sixty-five percent had the equivalent of a high school diploma or more education.

Contributing factors described in the bulletin are limited or no visits to prenatal care, substance use and housing instability. The rise in congenital syphilis “mirrors” the increase of cases in a statewide syphilis epidemic — described in a November 2022 Epidemiology Bulletin and reported by the Clarion in January.

That epidemic has seen cases increase significantly for four consecutive years — with data available through 2021, not through 2022 like this week’s congenital syphilis bulletin. In 2021, 447 cases of syphilis were reported, up from only 33 in 2017, predominantly affecting cisgender heterosexual people in urban areas of the state.

This week’s bulletin also notes that syphilis cases are rising nationally — pointing to issues with substance use, poverty, stigma and unstable housing as factors that reduce access to sexually transmitted infection prevention and care.

The bulletin says that comprehensive STI testing should be offered to sexually active people with new, multiple or anonymous partners. Pregnant people should be tested for syphilis during their first and third trimesters. If no previous tests are on file or if signs of syphilis are detected at time of delivery, a test should be performed on both the mother and the infant, the bulletin says.

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