Syphilis cases in Houston are skyrocketing as health officials declare an outbreak

In just three years, new infections rose 57 percent, with women alone experiencing a 128 percent surge

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published July 17, 2023 4:05PM (EDT)

Rapid test cassette for Syphilis test, Rapid TPHA test, positive and negative results showing (Getty Images/Md Babul Hosen)
Rapid test cassette for Syphilis test, Rapid TPHA test, positive and negative results showing (Getty Images/Md Babul Hosen)

Health officials are reporting a syphilis outbreak in Houston, Texas. According to a recent release by the Houston Health Department, there's been a 128 percent increase in cases among women. Recent data shows there were 674 cases in 2022 compared to 295 cases in 2019. For both males and females, new infections rose 57 percent between 2019 and 2022.

Congenital syphilis, in which a mother with untreated syphilis passes the infection to her baby, is also on the rise in Houston. In 2016, there were only 16 reported cases. In 2021, that number jumped to 151 cases. Congenital syphilis can be prevented, but requires testing a pregnant woman for syphilis right away. If tested positive, they can be treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, syphilis in pregnancy can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis can die from the infection as a newborn or be stillborn.

"It is crucial for pregnant women to seek prenatal care and syphilis testing to protect themselves from an infection that could result in the deaths of their babies," said Marlene McNeese Ward, deputy assistant director in the department's Bureau of HIV/STI and Viral Hepatitis Prevention. "A pregnant woman needs to get tested for syphilis three times during her pregnancy."

In an effort to combat the outbreak, the Houston Health Department said it will be omitting all "clinical fees for sexually transmitted infections at its health centers." Additionally, it will expand use of its HIV/STD mobile clinic to ramp up testing and education. The outbreak in Houston mirrors a national trend. Between 2020 and 2021, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis all increased, according to CDC data. Syphilis surged by 32 percent, in addition to cases of congenital syphilis which rose by 32 percent and resulted in 220 stillbirths and infant deaths.

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