‘We may be close to declaring a public health emergency.’ Why is syphilis surging in KC?

The consequences of an ongoing syphilis outbreak in Kansas City have been dire.

One child died in 2018, and eight others were born with congenital syphilis, a lethal infection passed from pregnant mothers to babies.

In fact, pregnant women in Kansas City are increasingly contracting syphilis and passing the potentially deadly disease to their newborn children, according to Kansas City Health Department officials.

And there’s more alarming news. Health officials reported the number of primary and secondary syphilis cases among all people in Kansas City increased from 121 in 2017 to 207 last year, a 71 percent jump.

The surge suggests it’s time to have a serious community-wide discussion about the spread of infectious diseases.

Other public health issues such as the opioid crisis may have pushed the STD surge into the background. But action is needed to stem the syphilis outbreak, and adequate funding is essential for education and prevention.

Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer’s remarks this week underscored the urgency of this problem.

“If we can’t get our hands around this, we may be close to declaring a public health emergency,” Archer told city officials.

“The number of people that can be affected if we don’t stop the outbreak is substantial,” Archer said.

Budget cuts have limited prevention efforts. City officials are in the final stages of formulating a proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins May 1. Addressing staffing and funding needs of the health department is paramount.

Syphilis is spread from person to person through sexual contact. The disease can be cured with antibiotics if caught early.

Congenital syphilis is completely preventable. In 2016 and 2017, a total of only nine children were born in Kansas City with the disease. No child was infected between 2010 and 2015.

Drug use played a role in some of the new cases in 2018. So did a lack of access to quality health care.

Soon-to-be mothers must remain vigilant in their prenatal care, said Tiffany Wilkinson, manager of the health department’s division of communicable disease prevention.

“It’s very important that those women get screened,” Wilkinson said.

With syphilis cases multiplying at an alarming rate, local officials must intensify efforts to educate the public and prevent future cases. Inaction could have a devastating impact on mothers and their newborn children.