Illinois Department of Public Health

As congenital syphilis cases spike in Illinois, health officials aim to increase data collection in effort to curb spread

Illinois reported 103 cases of congenital syphilis in 2023 after reporting just 29 in 2020

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Illinois public health officials announced that a new data collection process has been launched in an effort to combat a sharp rise in cases of congenital syphilis within the state.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the new process includes an online form that will facilitate collecting comprehensive data by alerting public health officials if an individual who tests positive for syphilis is pregnant.

Health officials said congenital syphilis cases have more than tripled in Illinois since 2020, with 103 cases confirmed in 2023 compared to just 29 in 2020.

Last fall, officials launched a "perinatal syphilis warmline," a phone service designed to offer expert guidance for prenatal health care providers.

“IDPH is determined to collaborate closely with health care providers to reverse the alarming increase in cases we have seen in recent years. Our new data collection process is designed to alert us faster to the pregnancy status of those with positive syphilis tests and lead to timelier treatment. Syphilis during pregnancy can cause tragic outcomes. Please remember that the best way to protect our Illinois babies is for pregnant persons to get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections before birth," IDPH director Dr. Sameer Vohra said.

The new online reporting form, which is for Illinois residents outside the city of Chicago, replaces a previous process for mandatory reporting and takes approximately three minutes, officials said.

The form provides important clinical information about pregnant people and newborns to improve the required investigation by local health officials as they aid in providing appropriate treatment and testing.

The efforts aim to halt the rise of congenital syphilis cases while enabling those who test positive to receive adequate treatment during pregnancy and the newborn period to prevent long-term consequences of untreated syphilis in pregnancy.

What is syphilis?

An infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, syphilis is spread through sexual contact.

Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant person with untreated syphilis passes the infection to their infant during pregnancy.

According to the IDPH, syphilis can cause miscarriage, low birth weight or premature delivery before birth. Up to 40% of babies with congenital syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection.

Though a baby with a syphilis infection may not show symptoms at the time of birth, the baby may develop serious complications such as seizures, developmental delay or death in infancy or childhood if left untreated.

How are health officials responding?

Illinois health officials are encouraging medical providers to increase testing of all individuals, particularly pregnant people, in any medical setting.

renatal health care providers are required by Illinois law to screen all who are pregnant for syphilis infection at the first prenatal visit and early in the third trimester, to ensure that treatment starts 30 days before delivery, officials said. This timing is required to prevent congenital syphilis.

Health officials said the battle to reduce cases of congenital syphilis is further complicated by a shortage of Bicillin, the only medication that treats syphilis in pregnancy and children.

More information on congenital syphilis can be found here.

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