The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is joining other southeastern states, medical insurers and others in the health care sector in a joint effort to combat what state health officials call “the congenital syphilis crisis.”

Congenital syphilis is syphilis that a mother passes to a baby at birth, and the result can be devastating to the health of the newborns.  Congenital syphilis is preventable, but it can lead to still birth, blindness, deafness, developmental problems and other negative outcomes if left untreated.

North Carolina and other states, particularly those the Southeastern US, have agreed to come together to bring case counts down.

NCDHHS Division of Public Health HIV/STI Medical Director Dr. Victoria Mobley said the number of congenital syphilis cases in the state is sky high right now.

“North Carolina’s congenital syphilis numbers are the highest they have been in almost 20 years,” she stated in a Friday, Dec. 15 press release. “It will take the commitment of all our providers across practice settings to reverse this trend. Syphilis screening should be a routine part of health care for all people who are sexually active and the standard of care for every single pregnant woman.”

In October, NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer for NC Medicaid Dr. Shannon Dowler oversaw the Southeastern Congenital Syphilis Payer Summit in Raleigh.  At that summit, public health representatives and representatives of insurance companies from Southeastern states – along with federal staff from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – discussed how they could partner up to help reverse the STD trend.

The rates of congenital syphilis  are rising nationally in an alarming way, and, though the Southern states make up a third of the US population, those states account for more than half of the reported congenital syphilis cases.

In North Carolina, there have been seven neonatal and stillbirth deaths due to congenital syphilis so far this year.

The first step addressed by the Southeastern states is defining the standards for screening.  They arrived at the following:

• Women should be tested for syphilis three times during their pregnancy: at their prenatal visit, between 28-32 weeks of gestation and at delivery.

• Newborns should not be discharged from the hospital until the mother’s delivery syphilis test results are known.

According to the press release, “In North Carolina, more than half of births are to Medicaid-eligible women, making Medicaid a pivotal player in addressing this issue as they message to patients and providers. This collaborative partnership between public health and insurers will continue as the group works to implement shared strategies for prevention, early detection, timely treatment and supporting families and the communities where they live.”

NCDHHS is also conducting a health care provider outreach campaign to increase screening of pregnant women in all settings as well as  increase access to rapid tests for syphilis and HIV.

The department is also launching a media campaign this week to help raise awareness regarding the importance of syphilis testing for all sexually active people in the state.