Fresno County struggles to lower newborn syphilis rate

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The number of newborn babies born with syphilis is growing across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate has increased by more than 200% over the past four years.

"It's a silent, silent epidemic, right now, here in Fresno County," said Leticia Berber

According to the health educator, the county is still struggling to get its congenital syphilis numbers down.

"We're still seeing these double digits in Fresno County, meaning that one case is just too many cases for us," Berber said.

In 2017, there were 63 cases of a baby being born with the sexually transmitted disease. It dropped to 39 in 2019. By 2020, there were 28 cases.

Berber said she believes the pandemic likely led to many cases going undiagnosed.

"Medical care for any individual did come to a stop, so that's why we think that the pandemic had taken affect on these women looking for prenatal care," she said.

While health leaders are unsure exactly why numbers are still high, they believe lack of transportation to medical appointments, drug use and limited sex education play a role.

"So it's very, very important that when you do have a new sexual partner, or you come in contact without protection, very, very important that you seek medical help," said Berber. "Get your physical exams."

Berber said going in for testing is key because syphilis is a silent disease. It starts out as a painless sore, and then turns into a rash. Both can be overlooked but need to be treated immediately with a penicillin shot.

If left untreated, it can be passed onto a baby.

"The baby can be born with deformed bones, severe anemia, the baby can actually pass away," Berber explained.

During this year, there have been no reported newborn deaths.

The county is working to improve its collaboration with medical providers and community-based organizations to continue raising awareness about the disease.

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