Syphilis Is a Public Health Priority

Content From: ADM Rachel L. Levine, M.D., Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPublished: April 19, 20243 min read



Cross-posted from: HHS Blog

Summary: Syphilis is surging in the U.S. During STI Awareness Week, help spread the word about the importance of syphilis prevention, testing, and treatment.

As a sexually transmitted infection (STI), syphilis is a public health threat in the United States, and it has reached a crisis level. Cases of syphilis in the U.S. have reached their highest levels since the 1950s, and, heartbreakingly, cases of syphilis among newborns have gone up more than tenfold over the past 10 years. So, this STI Awareness Week, I joined partners across the country to raise awareness of syphilis and congenital syphilis and what individuals, clinicians, and organizations can do to reduce it.

Syphilis is a serious infection. If untreated, it can damage the heart and brain and can cause blindness, deafness, and paralysis. When transmitted and not treated during pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage, lifelong medical issues, and even infant death. It is curable with antibiotics, and screening, early diagnosis, and treatment are essential to preventing complications and transmission.

Sadly, prevention and treatment services are not getting to all those who need them. For example, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, 9 in 10 cases of congenital syphilis could have been prevented with timely testing and adequate treatment during pregnancy in 2022. Testing and treatment gaps were present in the majority of cases across all races, ethnicities, and U.S. Census Bureau regions.

In response to this crisis, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formed a multi-agency National Syphilis and Congenital Syphilis Syndemic Task Force. The goal of the task force is to leverage federal resources to improve prevention and treatment of syphilis, while also reducing health inequities.

The task force has undertaken numerous actions, including raising awareness of this crisis, conducting briefings with external partners to identify and maximize collaboration opportunities, convening workshops to address disparities and focus on research strategies, and working with agencies to issue funding flexibility letters to grantees for syphilis care.

As we continue to implement these and other strategies, here are just some of the steps we can all take:

  • Individuals—Have open and honest conversations with your clinician and partner(s) about sexual health and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Find out if syphilis and other STI tests are for you, and, if you need treatment for an STI, work with your sex partners to make sure they receive treatment as well
  • Pregnant people—See a clinician as soon as possible if you think you are pregnant to be sure that you and your baby are healthy during your pregnancy. Ask your clinician about getting tested for syphilis at your first visit and, if you have syphilis, get treatment as quickly as possible and also talk with your partner(s) about treatment.
  • Clinicians—Collect a sexual history with all of your patients as part of routine health care and look for ways to reduce stigma and create a welcoming clinical environment. Test your patients for syphilis and other STIs as recommended by CDC. You can access STI treatment guidelines on to ensure appropriate treatment and care. If you need to learn more about syphilis, please utilize the National STD CurriculumExit Disclaimer and reach out to the STD Clinical Consultation NetworkExit Disclaimer if you need help managing your patients. The National Network of STD Clinical Prevention Training CentersExit Disclaimer can help provide education about syphilis and other STIs too.
  • Organizations—Continue to spread the word that syphilis is preventable and treatable and amplify efforts to reduce the STI-related stigma that prevents many people from accessing the medical care they need.

Please join me in raising awareness of syphilis and other STIs by sharing this information with your networks, this STI Awareness week and beyond.

Together, we can bend the syphilis curve and its associated complications. I look forward to reaching our goals for syphilis and other STIs together.