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Rates of babies born with syphilis rise in New Mexico, Nevada amid COVID-19 pandemic

Syphilis cases are increasing among pregnant women across the U.S., which poses a risk to unborn babies.
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Syphilis cases are increasing among pregnant women across the U.S., which poses a risk to unborn babies.

Data released last month shows the number of babies born with syphilis in the U.S. has surged. And during the first year of the pandemic, some Mountain West states were among those with the highest rates.

A decade ago, roughly 330 babies were born with syphilis in the U.S. In 2020, that number climbed to more than 2,100 cases, CDC data shows – an increase of more than 500%.

Broken down by state, New Mexico had the nation’s highest rate of what’s called congenital syphilis, when the mother passes the disease during pregnancy. The state’s 42 cases translate to a rate of about 183 per 100,000 live births.

Nevada’s rate ranked No. 4. Elizabeth Kessler, the state’s sexually transmitted disease surveillance manager, says the pandemic shifted many public health workers to COVID-19 tracing.

“We had less capacity to follow up on our own STD patients, and in many cases, we saw clinics had to temporarily shut down,” Kessler said.

Nevada’s trying to reverse the trend. During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring emergency rooms at hospitals and other medical facilities admitting pregnant women to examine them for syphilis. The bill went into effect last July.

New Mexico is also boosting its testing requirements. Last September, the New Mexico Department of Health issued an order that requires practitioners to test pregnant women for syphilis in the first and third trimesters, and again at delivery. The order came nearly nine months after the department failed to get a bill on the same issue through the state legislature.

Meanwhile, Utah and Idaho had among the lowest rates of congenital syphilis in the country, ranking 47th and 42nd, respectively.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel