NMDOH extends public health order following rise in syphilis cases

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Syphilis is a disease that is easily treatable with antibiotics yet case numbers are skyrocketing across the country and in New Mexico.

That’s why the Department of Health is extending its mandate for healthcare providers to test pregnant women for the disease multiple times.

Experts say if left untreated syphilis can cause permanent damage to newborns, it can even kill them. 

“I also recently heard that it was maybe a reason that wigs were very popular in certain cultures,” said Dr. Miranda Durham, medical director of the Infectious Disease Bureau. 

Today, the sexually-transmitted bacterial disease doesn’t stand a chance against modern medicine.

“Penicillin is still the treatment of choice, it is an antibiotic that’s been around for a long time, and it’s really good at treating syphilis,” said Durham. 

That’s why medical experts are frustrated at 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 pretty alarming in a disease that really should be zero,” Durham said. 

In adults, syphilis typically causes sores, rashes, and sometimes a fever.

“The most serious concern is that babies can die in utero from syphilis, and they can also die shortly after birth,”  said Durham. 

Experts say syphilis can also lead to serious problems in babies’ kidneys, spleens, or livers. It can even leave babies blind or deaf.

“I think the good news and all of this is just that with treatment, this is all preventable,” Durham said. 

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

“You know, people have sex during pregnancy and so you can test at the beginning of pregnancy and be negative, and you can acquire syphilis along the way, and you would want to know that,” said Durham. 

While it’s not guaranteed a mom will pass syphilis to her newborn, experts say there’s no reason to take that chance.

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

A bill will ask the Legislature to amend the public health code to align with CDC guidelines.

Department representatives confirmed they are planning to reintroduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session after their first attempt failed last year.