This is a picture of the Alaska Department of Health building in downtown Juneau on Thursday afternoon. A recently released bulletin shows a dramatic increase in the number of infants born with congenital syphilis in Alaska. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

This is a picture of the Alaska Department of Health building in downtown Juneau on Thursday afternoon. A recently released bulletin shows a dramatic increase in the number of infants born with congenital syphilis in Alaska. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Alaska sees ‘dramatic’ rise in number of infants born with congenital syphilis

The bulletin identified 26 cases reported in Alaska between 2018 and 2022.

Reported cases of infants born in Alaska with congenital syphilis have dramatically increased over the past four years, a bulletin released by the Alaska Department of Health reported earlier this week.

Congenital syphilis is a disease that can occur when a baby is born to a mother who is infected with syphilis, a bacterial infection most commonly spread by sexual contact. If an infant is born with the disease it can cause major health impacts, life-threatening symptoms and can be fatal in some cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bulletin released Tuesday identified 26 cases of congenital syphilis reported in Alaska between 2018 and 2022, with 25 of them occurring within the last three years.

According to Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology, Alaska’s increase in congenital syphilis cases in recent years mirrors a similar trend of increased rates of syphilis cases of adults in Alaska.

He said congenital syphilis and its spread is preventable and treatable if caught during pregnancy. However, the bulletin suggests that’s not happening.

“Syphilis can be a very severe disease that can result in neurological impairment and it can actually lead to death in people if it’s untreated — and congenital syphilis is one of the saddest outcomes of syphilis infection,” he said.

In a previous bulletin released in December of 2022, syphilis cases in Alaska increased dramatically in 2021 with a recorded 447 cases, equating to a 24% increase over the 2020 amount. Of those cases reported, five of the cases were recorded as congenital.

According to the CDC, the rise in syphilis and congenital syphilis is a national trend. CDC data suggests congenital syphilis cases across the country have more than tripled in recent years, with more than 2,000 cases reported in 2021 alone — the highest number annually reported since 1994.

McLaughlin agrees.

“We are seeing increases in congenital syphilis around the country and that coincides with an increase in syphilis cases across the country — Alaska is not alone,” he said.

According to the bulletin, of the mothers who gave birth to the infants infected, 85% were Anchorage residents.

McLaughlin said that high of a percentage isn’t unusual since unlike chlamydia and gonorrhea, where higher rates typically manifest in rural areas — high syphilis rates are predominantly found in urban areas.

“Almost 90% of Alaska’s reported syphilis cases during 2021 occurred in urban areas — and this is true across the country — and by and large we are seeing more cases of syphilis in our more densely populated urban area,” he said.

The bulletin also stated that 69% of the mothers reported controlled substance use within months of the case being reported and 42% of mothers experienced homelessness or unstable housing during that period as well.

McLaughlin said that also matches trends occurring right now that contribute to the epidemic’s rapid growth in recent years.

“One of the big challenges among people who are experiencing homelessness or unstable housing is if you’ve got a pregnant person, oftentimes, they won’t even go in for prenatal care because of cost barriers or other barriers — and that prenatal care is so important for screening for syphilis,” he said.

He said the spike in congenital syphilis in children matches the increased trend of women in heterosexual relationships contracting the infection, while in previous years a large portion of the syphilis cases identified in Alaska was among men who have sex with other men.

“A lot more women are getting it and primarily it’s women of childbearing age,” he said.

McLaughlin said the increase goes beyond singular trends, though, and is a multifactorial problem. He outlined factors such as the increasingly widespread availability of dating apps, the stigma of STIs, lack of affordable health care options, reduced use of protection during sex and increased substance use.

“What we really want to do is get the word out to health care providers and to the general public — especially those people who are at highest risk for syphilis,” he said.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 6

Here’s what to expect this week.

Disney Williams (right) orders coffee from Lorelai Bingham from the Flying Squirrel coffee stand at Juneau International Airport on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New coffee stand at airport stirs up heated dispute about having proper authorization to operate

Fans of Flying Squirrel Espresso praise location, hours; officials say FAA violations could be costly.

Nano Brooks and Emily Mesch file for candidacy on Friday at the City and Borough of Juneau Municipal Clerk’s office in City Hall. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
City and Borough of Juneau regular municipal election candidate filing period opens

So far, most vie for Assembly District 2 seat — mayor, Board of Education, and District 1 also open.

Killah Priest performs at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center in December 2019. (Photo courtesy of Lance Mitchell)
Killah Priest sets new record with Alaskan artists on ‘Killah Borealis’

Wu-Tang Clan rapper seeks to lift Alaskan voices and culture in his return performance to Juneau

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, July 10, 2024

For Wednesday, July 10 Attempt to Serve At 10:06 a.m. on Wednesday,… Continue reading

Commercial fishing boats are lined up at the dock at Seward’s harbor on June 22. Federal grants totaling a bit over $5 million have been awarded to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to help Alaskans sell more fish to more diverse groups of consumers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Federal grants to state agency aim to expand markets for Alaska seafood

More than $5M to help ASMI comes after Gov. Dunleavy vetoed $10M for agency.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds up the omnibus crime bill, House Bill 66, after signing it at a ceremony Thursday at the Department of Public Safety’s aircraft hangar at Lake Hood in Anchorage. At his side are Sandy Snodgrass, whose 22-year-old son died in 2021 from a fentanyl overdose, and Angela Harris, who was stabbed in 2022 by a mentally disturbed man at the public library in Anchorage and injured so badly that she now uses a wheelchair. Snodgrass and Harris advocated for provisions in the bill.Behind them are legislators, law enforcement officers and others. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Goals for new Alaska crime law range from harsher penalties for drug dealers to reducing recidivism

Some celebrate major progress on state’s thorniest crime issues while others criticize the methods.

Juneau Board of Education President Deedie Sorensen (left) and Vice President Emil Mackey, holding his son Emil Mackey IV, listen to discussion about next year’s budget for the school district during a meeting March 14 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Recall votes for both board members were certified this week for the Oct. 1 municipal election ballot. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Petitions to recall two Juneau school board leaders get enough signatures for Oct. 1 election ballot

President Deedie Sorensen, Vice President Emil Mackey targeted due to school district’s budget crisis.

Most Read