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Health Department says congenital syphilis in babies continues to be a growing problem

Posted: 5:33 PM, Nov 06, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-06 20:33:20-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The Kern County Department of Public Health says they've seen large increases in the number of cases of syphilis in the county over the past five years. And with that, they say the number of congenital syphilis cases has been rising dramatically too. Congenital syphilis is when a pregnant mom has syphilis and transfers it to her baby.

The health department called a special summit Wednesday at the Marriott in downtown Bakersfield to speak with local doctors and other health officials about the growing problem.

"Since 2012 we've had 171 infants born with congenital syphilis. 14 of those infants have died," said Kimberly Hernandez, an epidemiologist and assistant division director of health services at the health department.

The summit brought local health providers and doctors to discuss combat the disease. Medical students also sitting in and learning from the summit.

"I'm shocked and sad because this affects a vulnerable population, babies...They come in to this world and they're already sick and suffering," said Madeline Macalintal, a nursing major at California State University Bakersfield.

Although congenital syphilis is treatable, infants that survive can have long term effects including bone deformities and seizures.

"Historically if you're looking back into the 90s, we had no more than one case of congenital syphilis per year, many years we had zero. And so we're working to get back to that because congenital syphilis is preventable," Hernandez said.

Syphilis is easily treated with penicillin, and Hernandez said if a mom is treated within 30 days of delivery, it can prevent the transfer of the STD to her baby, although the earlier in the pregnancy, the better.

"Last year we had 56 cases of congenital syphilis, that's more cases of congenital syphilis than we've ever had in Kern County in the history of syphilis that we know of," Hernandez said.

So why is Kern County seeing a growing trend, if it's so easy to prevent? Hernandez says it's hard to know an exact culprit. But Wednesday's summit included talks with organizations that help those who might have a hard time getting prenatal care.

"For substance use, as well as homelessness and domestic violence, as well as we have representatives from various health insurance companies because a large piece of this is paying for testing and treatment," Hernandez said.

The health department says if you're sexually active, you can do your part by getting tested regularly so that STDs do not spread.