Spectrum News: Syphilis cases are increasing in pregnant women

UC expert says early detection is critical

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of syphilis cases among pregnant women in Ohio nearly doubled between 2016 and 2022. Syphilis is a treatable bacterial infection that is spread through intimate contact.

Without treatment, the mother's health can be affected, and the child may develop birth defects or be stillborn. That is why medical professionals say it is important to get prenatal care as early as possible.

Spectrum News produced a story interviewing Meredith Pensak, MD of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Carl Fichtenbaum, MD of the Division of Infectious Diseases, both in the UC College of Medicine.

Meredith Pensak, MD, OBGYN

Meredith Pensak, MD, of the Division of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the UC College of Medicine/Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Marketing + Brand

“We know that catching syphilis early in pregnancy and treating it can significantly decrease the risk of stillbirth,” said Pensak. “It can decrease the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and neonatal demise and death.”

Pensak, who is a member of the Hamilton County Congenital Syphilis Review Board, has been studying it for years and knows just how much of an impact it has had on her patients.

"We're seeing this increased rate of congenital syphilis of babies being born with syphilis and the issues that come with that," Pensak told Spectrum News.

Fichtenbaum says the issues become even more serious if a pregnant woman passes it on to her child in the womb.

"If it happens when the child is developing in the first or second trimester of pregnancy, there can be birth defects associated with it that are long-lasting and can not be reversed," said Fichtenbaum.

Professor Carl J. Fichtenbaum, MD shown here his in lab at MSB. UC/ Joseph Fuqua UC/Joseph Fuqua II

Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the UC College of Medicine/Photo/Joe Fuqua II/UC Marketing + Brand

That's why Pensak said it's important to detect it early on during pregnancy.

"We know that a lack of prenatal care increases your risk of having congenital syphilis and these complications," Pensak said who added insurance issues for some is contributing to the problem.

"We see patients with unstable housing might not have access and we see that, in general, there has also been reduced public awareness," she said. "We know that catching syphilis early in pregnancy and treating it can significantly reduce the risk of still birth, it can decrease the risk of pre-term birth, it can decrease the risk of low birth rate, and it can decrease the risk of neonatal demise and death.

See the entire story here.

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