DOH: Uptick in syphilis cases in Hawaii a concern

The number of syphilis cases in women and newborns in Hawaii has increased annually during the past four years, the state Department of Health said Wednesday.

“While we know everyone’s current attention is focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, we must also pay close attention to syphilis because of the potential health effects, especially for developing babies,” said Dr. Glenn Wasserman, chief of the DOH’s Communicable Disease and Public Health Nursing Division, in a news release. “Syphilis is preventable and easily treatable when diagnosed early.”

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According to the Health Department, early cases of syphilis in adults are particularly infectious, while later stages of the disease can lead to significant damage to numerous organs, including the heart and brain.

Pregnant mothers with syphilis also can transmit the disease to their unborn fetus at any stage, causing miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, low birth weight or death before or shortly after birth, the DOH said. Babies born with syphilis can have deformed bones, severe anemia, central nervous system damage and other problems.

The number of babies in Hawaii born with syphilis — known as congenital syphilis — ranged from 0-2 cases per year from 2000-16, 3-4 cases per year from 2017-19, and 11 probable cases so far in 2020, the DOH said.

The more recent rapid rise of cases, although still low, reflects an increasing trend and requires immediate attention, the department said.

The trends in Hawaii mirror national trends.

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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. Diagnosing the disease can prove difficult because the DOH said signs of infection might not be apparent, especially during latent phases of the infection.

More information about syphilis infections in Hawaii can be found online at bit.ly/DOHinfo.

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