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Record numbers of syphilis cases in St. Louis spur health officials to action

This 1980 scanning electron microscopic image depicts a cluster of spiral-shaped, Treponema pallidum bacteria, which causes syphilis.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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Missouri last year reported the highest number of congenital syphilis cases in the state since 1994.

St. Louis and St. Louis County each reported 11 congenital syphilis cases in 2021 — a sharp increase from five years ago.

In response, the St. Louis and St. Louis County health departments are urging people who are pregnant to get tested for syphilis so they do not pass it to their children.

“It's really heartbreaking because every single case of congenital syphilis is 100% preventable,” said Nebu Kolenchery, director of communicable disease response for the St. Louis County Health Department.

Congenital syphilis occurs when someone who has syphilis and is pregnant is not treated by a doctor. That can lead to miscarriage, infant death and babies born with physical and neurological disabilities.

To reduce the number of such cases, the health departments plan to investigate every case of congenital syphilis to see how it could have been prevented, remind local health care workers to test patients for sexually transmitted infections and share information on social media and dating apps.

Syphilis was in decline for years in the United States. However, the disease has not disappeared, said Suzanne Alexander, chief of the communicable disease bureau for the St. Louis Department of Health.

“An ease in treating it might give people the false impression that it's no longer with us or it's no longer important,” Alexander said. “As we see, it is incredibly important to be aware that these pockets do exist.”

Health officials particularly want to better inform young people — the most at-risk group for syphilis.

Young people are less likely to go to the doctor and often don’t have health insurance or ways to cover the costs of health care, Kolenchery said. That’s why it’s especially important for sexually active people who plan to get pregnant to be tested, he said.

Congenital syphilis is fully preventable if pregnant people are treated by doctors, Kolenchery said.

Farrah Anderson is the newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter: @farrahsoa.

Farrah Anderson is a rising junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she is studying journalism. She joins the St. Louis Public Radio as a newsroom intern for Summer '22.

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