Science and Tech


Houston sees 128% increase in syphilis cases among women

Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can progress through several stages and lead to a wide range of health issues.
Microscope image of the bacterium responsible for causing syphilis.
Posted at 2:11 PM, Jul 17, 2023

The Houston Health Department has declared a syphilis outbreak as cases have skyrocketed 128% among women in the city.

According to most recent data, reported cases rose from 1,845 in 2019 to 2,905 in 2022. Houston and surrounding Harris County have also experienced a nine-fold increase in congenital syphilis, as reported cases rose from just 16 cases in 2016 to 151 infections in 2021, the latest year of available statistics.

Congenital syphilis is a type of infection that is present at birth and is transmitted from an infected mother to her unborn baby during pregnancy. The severity of the infection in the baby depends on various factors, but can lead to a range of serious health problems, including stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, bone deformities, developmental issues, or a baby's death soon after birth. 

Doctors recommend pregnant women be tested for syphilis multiple times throughout pregnancy, including during the first prenatal visit, during the third trimester, and during birth.

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"It is crucial for pregnant women to seek prenatal care and syphilis testing to protect themselves from an infection that could result in the deaths of their babies," said Marlene McNeese Ward, deputy assistant director in the department’s Bureau of HIV/STI and Viral Hepatitis Prevention. "A pregnant woman needs to get tested for syphilis three times during her pregnancy."

Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can progress through several stages and lead to a wide range of serious health problems. Those infected may experience fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue.  

If left untreated for long periods of time, syphilis can lead to serious complications affecting various organs and systems of the body. Those infected are also at an increased risk of contracting HIV due to a painless sore that can develop near the site of sexual contact. 

In response to the outbreak, the Houston Health Department is waiving all clinical fees for sexually transmitted infections at its health center and expanding the use of its mobile testing clinic to increase the number of community screening sites in Houston and Harris County. The department said it will also ramp up education, testing and treatment throughout the area.