Health experts warn of rising rates of syphilis in pregnant women and babies in Alaska

Close up shot of a woman with dark hair and eyeglasses looking into the distance
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska chief medical officer, at a press conference in 2020. Zink cosigned a letter outlining new guidelines for health care practitioners that promotes increased syphilis testing. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink is concerned about rising rates of congenital syphilis in the state. Those rates have risen steadily between 2018 and 2022, according to the state Division of Public Health. 

A pregnant woman with syphilis can pass the disease to her baby during pregnancy. Congenital syphilis can lead to serious complications like premature birth, stillbirth or a baby born with blindness or deformed bones.

Zink said the increase in congenital syphilis mirrors a rise in syphilis across the state. 

“It’s a completely preventable condition,” said Zink. “So we have tests for it. We have treatment for it. But if we don’t identify a mother who was positive for syphilis while she is pregnant with her child, that child can have lifelong complications, as well as put the child at risk for miscarriage and stillbirth.”

Zink said the state is recommending new guidelines for prevention. Previously, health care providers were testing at least once during pregnancy and then as needed based on risk profile. But now, the state recommends pregnant women be tested twice during pregnancy and once at birth. 

Zink said syphilis can be treated with a one-time antibiotic shot, but there’s a nationwide shortage of the single-shot treatment. She said the state is working on addressing this shortage but, for now, women who are pregnant and housing unstable have priority.

Zink said babies with congenital syphilis tend to be from mothers who didn’t have access to good prenatal care. Many of those mothers were experiencing homelessness and most reported using hard drugs like heroin, amphetamine, methamphetamine or cocaine in the year before they gave birth. 

Zink cosigned a letter to health care practitioners outlining new guidelines based on the rising rates of syphilis and shortages of the first-line treatment. She urged practitioners to test for syphilis whenever people intersect with the medical system. 

“Maybe it’s an urgent-care orthopedic clinic, an emergency department,” said Zink. “That may be the one time that someone who’s struggling with homelessness or addiction may be coming in and out of the health care system, or maybe it’s an addiction treatment service.” 

Zink said rates of syphilis were down for years so health care workers may not have been trained much on the disease. She said rates of sexually transmitted diseases are generally higher in Alaska than other states. But Alaska is not alone; she said syphilis is one of the biggest public health concerns nationwide.

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Rachel here.

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