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Virginia’s rising syphilis cases are another bellwether of a strained public health system

Penicillin is the frontline treatment for syphilis patients.
Penicillin is the frontline treatment for syphilis patients.(Parker Michels-Boyce, Virginia Mercury)
Published: Apr. 25, 2022 at 8:53 AM EDT
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For more than two years, COVID-19 has largely monopolized the time and resources of local health departments across Virginia. But as the virus moves into an uneasy plateau, health officials are turning their attention to another infectious disease with alarming rates of growth.

Since at least 2016, cases of syphilis — a sexually transmitted disease once thought to be on the verge of eradication — have been rising across Virginia. Cases increased by 158 percent between  2007 and 2017, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health, and rates jumped again the following year. In 2020, the most recently available data, there were 1,288 new diagnoses of early-stage syphilis, an increase of 228 cases compared to just four years earlier.

Even more concerning has been a persistent rise in congenital infections among infants who contract the disease from their mothers. A decade ago, in 2011, Virginia had zero cases. In 2020, there were 15, including five syphilitic stillbirths. Preliminary data from 2021 indicates another rise, pushing the state to 17 cases, according to Oana Vasiliu, the director of STD Prevention and Surveillance for VDH.

Up to 40 percent of infants born to women with untreated syphilis are stillborn or die from the infection shortly afterward. Babies that survive can have serious health complications, including jaundice, severe anemia and blindness. The rapid spread of the disease over the course of a few years has worried public health workers across the state, from on-the-ground specialists to the department’s top leadership. Dr. Colin Greene, Virginia’s newly appointed state health commissioner, identified syphilis as one of the agency’s biggest post-pandemic priorities.

“It’s hard to believe we’re seeing a resurgence to the point where we’re seeing congenital cases again,” he said at a meeting earlier this month. “They’re something I was taught in med school that I’d probably never see because they used to be so rare.”

While the numbers may seem small, experts say they can obscure the seriousness of rising infections. In a fact sheet for health care providers, VDH described every case of congenital syphilis as “a sentinel event representing a public health failure.” Dr. Patrick Jackson, an infectious disease physician at UVA’s Ryan White HIV Clinic, said it’s because the disease is so easy to test and treat.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy

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