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Misconception That Syphilis Has ‘Disappeared’ Presents Major Impediment To Preventing Infant Deaths

In this Globe and Mail opinion piece, columnist Andre Picard examines the efforts of a new group, the Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership — which includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Save The Children, the CDC, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the WHO — to “make screening for syphilis a routine part of pregnancy care with the goal of eliminating congenital syphilis.” Picard writes, “According to the World Health Organization, some 2.1 million women with syphilis give birth every year,” and notes, “Almost 70 percent of their babies are stillborn, and many of the rest suffer from low birth weight (putting them at great risk for a host of illnesses), hearing loss, vision loss and facial deformities.”

He continues, “The syphilis test — and treatment where necessary — costs only about $1.50” and “can also be done at the same time as a rapid HIV test, which is now routine for women in virtually all developing countries.” Citing a study published in the medical journal Lancet Infectious Diseases that found “the blood test and antibiotics combo reduced stillbirths in women with syphilis by an impressive 58 percent and, overall, adverse outcomes fell by 69 percent,” Picard concludes, “The ability to save lives is there. The cost is negligible. The only real impediment, in the words of David Mabey of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is the ‘perception among many public health experts, program managers and policymakers that syphilis has disappeared'” (3/12).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.