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An Increase in Syphilis Cases Occurs Amid Budget Cuts That Jeopardize Efforts to Control and Contain Outbreaks

Credits: The Hill

Syphilis rates have surged by over 17 percent, surpassing last year’s record and reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. The concerning trend, which may exacerbate if Congress allows proposed budget cuts to disease trackers, is evident in the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report reveals a significant increase in syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), with over 2.5 million STD cases reported to the CDC in 2022. The actual count is likely higher due to challenges with testing accessibility across the country.

Of particular alarm is the spike in congenital syphilis cases, where an untreated infection in a parent is transmitted to an infant during birth. In 2022, 3,755 documented cases led to at least 282 stillbirths and infant deaths. The rate surged by over 30 percent from 2021, reaching its highest since 1991.

Syphilis cases (Credits: CNN)

Laura Bachmann, the acting director of the CDC’s STD office, expressed deep concern over the situation, emphasizing the need for a different approach, increased investment in infrastructure, innovation, and comprehensive efforts in treatment, diagnosis, and prevention.

The potential budget cuts, looming amid ongoing Congressional gridlock, could lead to a $400 million reduction in disease investigators’ funding. The National Coalition of STD Directors anticipates that such cuts would force public health departments to lay off more than 800 disease trackers in 2024 and another 190 in 2025.

The impact of these job losses would result in fewer resources for HIV prevention medication, STD testing, contact tracing, and addressing outbreaks of other infections.

States with the highest STD rates, including Texas and Arizona, could be severely affected by the proposed cuts. For example, Texas, with the highest cases of congenital syphilis in 2022, may lose 83 disease trackers. Arizona, experiencing high rates of HIV and congenital syphilis, stands to lose 60.

To address the growing crisis, the Biden administration established the National Syphilis and Congenital Syphilis Syndemic Federal Task Force in 2023. The task force focuses on promoting timely testing, improving drug access, and addressing racial disparities in healthcare access.

Their goal is to increase by 5 percent the percentage of syphilis cases prevented through testing and treatment by September. However, the effectiveness of these efforts could be hampered if budget cuts are implemented.

Rachel Levine, chair of the task force, emphasized the preventable nature of most congenital syphilis cases if infections are detected and treated in a timely manner.

She underscored the importance of healthcare professionals asking patients about their sexual history and conducting appropriate testing to achieve the goal of fewer syphilis cases and reduced impact on infants.

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