MILWAUKEE — Cases of adult and congenital syphilis are on the rise in Wisconsin, with the highest rates being found in Milwaukee, the state health department reported Friday.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) said in a statement that the number of people diagnosed with syphilis in Milwaukee has increased by nearly 300 percent, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Most of the new syphilis cases have been reported in women of reproductive age, the DHS found. A higher number of congenital syphilis, or syphilis cases where an infected pregnant person passes syphilis to their fetus, were reported in Milwaukee.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a type of bacteria known as "Treponema pallidum." If left untreated, that bacteria can affect many different organ systems - including the heart and blood vessels, according to the DHS.
Up to 40 percent of babies with congenital syphilis may be born stillborn or die from the infection. Congenital syphilis can also cause miscarriage, prematurity or low birth weight, the DHS says.
“The spike in syphilis cases is alarming,” Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer for Bureau of Communicable Diseases, in the statement.
“We are especially concerned with cases of congenital syphilis affecting babies born to mothers with syphilis. Congenital syphilis can have devastating consequences but is preventable with simple screening, early detection, and treatment," said Westergaard.
Pregnant people who live in areas where there are higher rates of syphilis should be screened at least twice during pregnancy, once in the first trimester and again during the third trimester, according to CDC guidelines.
DHS says it has identified six counties in Wisconsin where repeat third-trimester testing is recommended: Brown, Dane, Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha and Winnebago counties.
The health department says the prevalence of syphilis also "highlights longstanding racial inequities observed across a wide range of health conditions."
The DHS says, for example, 65.9% of syphilis cases in Milwaukee diagnosed between 2018-2020 were among Black residents. That's despite being only 38.7 percent of the city’s population.