The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has issued a memo to health care providers in the state calling for increased awareness and testing for the sexually transmitted infection (STI) syphilis. Recently released 2022 surveillance data show a continued rise in cases in the state. Cases of syphilis increased 19% (1,608 to 1,916) from 2021 to 2022. Among those cases, congenital syphilis increased 81% (16 to 29) during this same time period. By comparison, Wisconsin had an average 0-2 congenital syphilis cases per year in the 2010’s.
“These increases from pre-pandemic numbers are concerning, especially the increase in cases of congenital syphilis,” said DHS Chief Medical Officer for the Bureau of Communicable Disease and State Epidemiologist Dr. Ryan Westergaard. “Syphilis and congenital syphilis can lead to serious health complications, but they are preventable with simple screening, early detection, and treatment.”
Syphilis is caused by a type of bacteria known as Treponema pallidum that is spread through sexual contact. Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant person with syphilis passes the infection to their unborn child which can have serious impacts on an unborn baby. Before birth, syphilis can cause miscarriage, premature delivery, or low birth weight. Up to 40% of babies with congenital syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection. At birth, a baby with a syphilis infection may not have signs or symptoms of disease. However, if the baby does not receive treatment right away, the baby may develop serious problems, such as cataracts, deafness, or seizures, it could also lead to death. Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics.