NMDOH extends public health following increase in syphilis cases

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Syphilis is a disease that can be easily treated with antibiotics, but the number of cases is increasing across the country and in New Mexico.

That’s why the Department of Health is extending the mandate for health care providers to screen pregnant women for the disease more often.

Experts say syphilis can cause permanent damage to unborn babies if left untreated.

“I also recently heard that it’s probably the reason wigs are so popular in some cultures,” said Dr. Miranda Durham, medical director of the Office of Infectious Diseases.

Today, sexually transmitted bacterial diseases do not stand a chance against modern medicine.

“Penicillin is still the treatment of choice, it’s a long-standing antibiotic, and it’s very good at treating syphilis,” Durham said.

That is why medical professionals are frustrated by the increasing number of babies born with it.

CDC data says it happened more than 2,100 times in 2020. That includes 42 cases in New Mexico — the most of any state that year.

“It’s shocking in a disease where it really should be zero,” Durham said.

In adults, syphilis usually causes sores, rashes, and sometimes fever.

“The biggest concern is that babies can die from syphilis in the womb, and they can die soon after birth,” Durham said.

Experts say syphilis can cause serious problems in children’s kidneys, spleen or liver. It can leave babies blind or deaf.

“I think the good news is that with treatment, it’s all preventable,” Durham said.

The New Mexico Department of Health recently extended a public health mandate requiring all health care providers to test for the disease multiple times during pregnancy — even if the first test comes back negative.

“You know, people have sex during pregnancy, and you can test early in pregnancy and it’s negative, and you might get syphilis down the road, and you want to know that,” Durham said.

It’s not certain that a mother can pass syphilis to her newborn, but experts say there’s no reason to take that chance.

“That’s really what the public health mandate is trying to say, don’t miss an opportunity and assume you know someone isn’t at risk,” Durham said.

The Department of Health wants to make syphilis testing during pregnancy a New Mexico law.

Department representatives confirmed they plan to reintroduce the bill in the next legislative session after their first attempt failed last year.

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