Is syphilis a childhood disease? A disease of the newborn? Over the past decade, “there’s been about a 700% increase in the cases of congenital syphilis in the United States” from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of STD Prevention. Rates of congenital syphilis are highest in the South and Southwest, with Texas being one of those states. Unfortunately, this is a reversal of the historically low numbers a decade ago.
The reasons for this dramatic increase are many, but high on the list is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic with a shift in funding and personnel to address the public’s needs during the pandemic. In addition, entwined with funding were/are the misguided political forces against public health systems because of the anger about the pandemic.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is typically spread by skin sores with sexual contact. There is evidence that it has been infecting people for thousands of years and there was no cure until the last 100 or so years. Without treatment, the infection progresses through a series of stages. It can lie dormant in the body for years or even decades, returning with a vengeance to attack the brain, nerves, eyes and other organs. It can lead to deafness, blindness or death. Pregnant women can pass the infection to a developing baby. It can lead to stillbirth and may damage the baby’s organs and bones or harm vision and hearing. In 2021 more than 200 infants died from congenital syphilis.
This is a sexually transmitted disease, one of many diseases that can range from mild discomfort to death. The best way to prevent transmission is not to have sexual intercourse. Unfortunately, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases is higher in children and teenagers than in any other age group. Teenagers need to know that having sex can lead to pregnancy and to fatal diseases.
There is no doubt that peer pressure can be a force for them to have sex. The pressure to have sex is presented daily in the media. Analyses of broadcast media indicate that teenage viewer see over a 100 incidents of sexual behavior during prime time each week. Eighty percent of all movies shown on networks or cable have sexual content and music videos frequently portray sexual feelings, impulses, and suggestive body movements. It is rare that the negative consequences of unprotected sexual contact have bad outcomes on TV. Even rarer are discussions about birth control or barrier protection. Remember, what teenagers see, they also saw as children.
Good sex education should be taught in schools, more public information on social media and TV, and adequate funding for detection and treatment for both sexes. In our culture, it is frequently difficult for parents to talk about sex with their children but it may be easier if it is started early and calmly while discussing what is seen on TV. Remember that our parents had sex at least once, hopefully with great love and respect.
by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
UTMB Pediatrics - Pediatric Primary Care
UTMB After Hours Urgent Care