Syphilis is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections globally, with approximately 6 million new cases each year. If a pregnant woman who is infected does not receive early and effective treatment, she can then transmit the infection to her unborn infant. This is known as ‘congenital syphilis’, which is often fatal. It can also cause low birth weight, prematurity, and other congenital deformities.
Congenital syphilis is the second leading cause of preventable stillbirth globally, preceded only by malaria.
Mother-to-child transmission of syphilis can result in a number of serious consequences for the health of newborn infants, including stillbirth, neonatal death, low-birth-weight, prematurity, and other congenital deformities.
Preventable and treatable
Congenital syphilis is easily preventable and treatable – as long as testing and treatment are provided to pregnant women early during antenatal care. The risk of adverse outcomes to the fetus is minimal if a pregnant woman, infected with syphilis, receives testing and adequate treatment with benzathine penicillin, early in pregnancy – ideally before the second trimester.
Since 2010, PAHO Member States have committed to the elimination of mother-to-child transmission (EMTCT) of HIV and syphilis in the Region. These commitments were renewed and expanded in 2016 through the approved Plan of Action for the Prevention and Control of HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections (2016-2021), contributing to the end of AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as a public health problem in the Americas. The plan of action expands the EMTCT initiative (called "EMTCT Plus"), leveraging the maternal and child health platform to include elimination of other preventable communicable diseases in the Americas, such as hepatitis B and Chagas disease.
The objective of the EMTCT Plus is to achieve and sustain the EMTCT of HIV, syphilis, Chagas, and perinatal hepatitis B as a public health threat. It embraces the principles and lines of action of the Strategy for Universal Access to Health and Universal Health Coverage.
Candidate countries can apply to the World Health Organization (WHO) through PAHO to be certified for the EMTCT of HIV and syphilis. In the Americas, Cuba in 2015 and, in 2017, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and St. Kitts and Nevis were recognized by WHO for the dual elimination.