Syphilis still affects large numbers of pregnant women
world-wide, causing serious health problems and even death to their babies, yet
this infection could be prevented by early testing and treatment, according to
a study by international researchers published in this week's PLOS Medicine.
Researchers, led by Lori Newman from the World Health
Organization, estimate that in 2008, 1.4 million pregnant women around the
world were infected with syphilis, 80% of whom had attended antenatal care
The researchers reached this figure by using information on
the number of syphilis infections from 97 countries and on antenatal clinic
attendance from 147 countries and then inputting this information into a model.
30% in Africa
In consultation with experts, the authors used a realistic
scenario to estimate the percentage of pregnant women tested for syphilis and
adequately treated, ranging from 30% for Africa and the Mediterranean region to
70% for Europe. Based on this scenario, the authors estimate that in 2008, syphilis
infections in pregnant women caused approximately 520 000 harmful outcomes,
including 215 000 stillbirths, 90 000 neonatal (baby) deaths, 65 000 preterm or
low birth-weight babies, and 150 000 babies with congenital infections.
The authors estimate that in 2008, testing and treating
pregnant women for syphilis prevented a quarter of such harmful outcomes but
worryingly, the authors found that about two-thirds of these harmful effects
occurred in women who had attended antenatal care but were not treated or
tested for syphilis.
The authors say: "This analysis indicates that syphilis
continues to be an important cause of adverse outcomes of pregnancy, including
substantial numbers of perinatal deaths and disabilities."
They continue: "Countries also need to ensure that
quality-assured syphilis testing is available in all antenatal clinic settings,
now possible even in remote care settings with the introduction of rapid
The authors add: "In addition, efforts are needed to
ensure universal access to early antenatal care, as well as improved quality of
antenatal care so that all pregnant women receive an essential package of
services that includes routine and early access to point-of-care testing and
adequate treatment for syphilis if seropositive."