Congenital syphilis screening 'cuts baby deaths'

Syphilis bacteria
Image caption Syphilis is caused by sexually transmitted bacteria known as Treponema pallidum.

Hundreds of thousands of babies' lives could be saved each year if pregnant women were screened for syphilis, researchers say.

Syphilis causes 500,000 stillbirths and newborn deaths globally, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

A study of 41,000 women, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, showed that testing and antibiotics could more than halve the number of deaths.

UK experts said screening was cheap and cost-effective.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that results in sores, a rash and ultimately serious damage to the heart, brain and eyes, and can lead to death.

It can also be passed from mother to child in the womb - a condition known as congenital syphilis.


Most countries have policies of screening pregnant women, but this does not always take place in some rural and poor parts of the world.

It is thought that fewer than one in eight women is actually screened for syphilis during pregnancy.

More than two million women are pregnant with syphilis each year. This has serious complications in more than two-thirds of cases.

It can result in stillbirth, deaths of newborns and low birthweight as well as in the classic symptoms of syphilis.

A group of researchers at University College London analysed 10 previous studies, involving more than 41,000 women, to determine whether screening would be effective.

Image caption Syphilis can cause the skin on a baby's feet to peel

The studies showed screening resulted in a 58% decrease in stillbirths as well as a similar reduction in deaths in the first few weeks of life. Cases of congenital syphilis were also reduced.

The report's author, Dr Sarah Hawkes, from University College London, said screening had "failed because of a lack of will to screen" and that treatment with penicillin was "incredibly cheap".

She suggested syphilis screening should take place at the same time as tests for HIV.

"The resources needed to roll out programmes for antenatal screening will be a worthwhile investment for reduction of adverse pregnancy outcomes and improvement of neonatal and child survival," she added.

Professor David Mabey and Professor Rosanna Peeling, from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an accompanying article that screening cost $1.44 (£0.89) per woman.

"If all pregnant women were screened, and those who tested positive were treated with one dose of benzathine penicillin before 28 weeks' gestation, no stillbirths or neonatal deaths would be due to syphilis.

"This is one of the most cost-effective health interventions."

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