Yang carries a stack of cards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that depict what happens when the bacteria Treponema pallidum infiltrates a patient’s body. There’s a picture of a penis with an angry red sore. There’s one of a tongue with mucus-lined lesions on it. And there’s one of a newborn baby, with a rash on its belly, torso, and thighs, and its mouth open, as if caught midcry.Yang found herself walking through a homeless encampment in Huron, Calif., an hour’s drive southwest of her office at the Fresno County Department of Public Health, because of the prospect of one such baby.She was on the hunt for Angelica, a pregnant woman whose visit to a community clinic had prompted a report to the health department’s sexually transmitted disease programme.
Angelica’s syphilis test resulted in a positive result. If she did not receive treatment, her baby could end up looking like the one in the picture, or worse — there was a 40% chance the baby would die.Yang, on the other hand, knew that if she helped Angelica get three weekly shots of penicillin at least 30 days before giving birth, the infection would be eradicated and her baby would be born without any symptoms. Every case of congenital syphilis, which occurs when a baby is born with the disease, can be avoided.
Each of these incidents is regarded as a “sentinel event,” indicating that the public health system is failing.The alarms are now sounding. More than 129,800 syphilis cases were reported in the United States in 2019, more than doubling the case count from five years prior. Congenital syphilis cases quadrupled during the same time period, with 1,870 babies born with the disease and 128 dying. Although case counts for 2020 are still being finalised, the CDC reports that reported cases of congenital syphilis have already surpassed the previous year. Babies of colour, Hispanics, and Native Americans are disproportionately at risk.
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