• By Dana Sparks

Women’s Wellness: Screening pregnant women for syphilis

September 6, 2018

a pregnant woman being check in a doctor's office
All pregnant women should be screened early for syphilis, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which reaffirms an earlier recommendation.

In the report, the expert panel says after a steady decline from 2008 to 2012, cases of congenital syphilis markedly increased from 2012 to 2106, from 8.4 to 15.7 cases per 100 000 live births. This is an increase of 87 percent. At the same time, national rates of syphilis increased among women of reproductive age.

"Reaffirmation of this U.S. Preventive Services Task Force statement is timely, given the increasing rates of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections both in the general U.S. population and in reproductive-aged women specifically," says Dr. Regan Theiler, a Mayo Clinic OB-GYN. She was not involved with the recommendation.

Dr. Theiler says screening for syphilis has long been a critical component of routine prenatal care and that this screening and screenings for other sexually transmitted infections also are recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

According to the task force, congenital syphilis is when a child is born with the infection. It's also connected to stillbirth, neonatal death and bone deformities. 

"Syphilis infection in pregnant women can be passed to the baby through the placenta, with serious illness or death of the neonate, says Dr. Theiler. "The earlier the infection is detected, the more effective antibiotic treatment is in preventing congenital syphilis."

If a pregnant patient screens positive for syphilis, additional confirmatory testing will be performed to assess for active infection. "In the case of confirmed maternal infection, treatment of the mother with penicillin is curative and can prevent transmission of syphilis to the baby," says Dr. Theiler. "This ability to prevent congenital syphilis is the primary reason for screening during pregnancy."

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