STI warning for pregnant women after syphilis claims life of unborn baby

Victorian Health authorities are urging people to get tested for syphilis after a baby contracted the disease in the womb and sadly passed away.

A growing number of women in Victoria have reportedly been infected with syphilis, which can have severe implications for unborn babies. 

Congenital syphilis

“It is the first fatal case of congenital syphilis recorded in the state in 14 years and comes amid a resurgence of the dangerous sexually transmitted infection which has seen cases jump 40 per cent since 2015,” The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Although the outbreak has mainly affected men, there has been an increase in the number of women contracting the disease.

According to the ABC: “The outbreak has affected mostly gay and bisexual men, but there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of women with syphilis, with 146 cases in 2017.”


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However, among the cases, two were reported as congenital syphilis – which occurs when a pregnant mother who has syphilis spreads the disease through the placenta to her baby.

Victoria’s deputy chief health officer, Dr Brett Sutton, said: “We shouldn’t be seeing congenital cases in Australia at all.”

Signs, symptoms and treatment of syphilis

Syphilis is a rare sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacterial infection. Symptoms of syphilis include painless sores followed by a rash. After that, there aren’t any signs until the final stage, which can then cause damage to the brain, nerves, eyes or heart.

According to Health Direct, the disease can be treated with penicillin if detected early.

pregnant woman heart

‘All women of reproductive age should also be screened’

Dr Sutton has recommended a large-scale screen program, including all women of reproductive age as well as women who are pregnant.

“All women of reproductive age should also be screened, including all pregnant women during their first antenatal visit, as should sex workers, travellers returning from countries where syphilis is more prevalent, people who inject drugs and those who have multiple sexual partners,” Dr Sutton said. 

Although screening measures have already been in place, Dr Sutton is urging doctors to increase their awareness of the disease in women throughout pregnancy. 

“There are women at high risk who might have an even greater risk of contracting syphilis through a pregnancy where just one test at the beginning of pregnancy is probably not sufficient,” he said.

“We’re recommending a test later in pregnancy and at delivery as well to make sure it’s picked up even if it’s transmitted through the pregnancy.”

If you think you could have syphilis, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. 

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