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Kern sees dramatic increase in number of babies born with syphilis

Kern County has seen a dramatic increase in the number of babies born with syphilis over the last three years.

For decades, cases of congenital syphilisin the county have been fairly low or nonexistent. It is a problem that has county health officials stressing the importance of prevention, detection and treatment.

Congenital syphilis can be deadly, and if the baby survives they can deal with lifelong issues.

"There can be blindness, there can be deafness, long bone deformities," said Denise Smith, director of disease control for Kern County. "There can be some serious problems with the baby."

Last year in Kern County, 28 babies were diagnosed with congenital syphilis. Six of them died.

The recent spike in the sexually transmitted disease has not been traced back to anything in specific.

In 2014, 1.6 percent of women in California were diagnosed with syphilis per 100,000 population. Eighteen percent of men were.

The same year in Kern County, cases were reported in 10 percent of women per 100,000 population and 24 percent of men.

"The crazy thing about syphilis is that you can not have any symptoms at all," said Smith.

This becomes a problem because once those initial symptoms clear up, the bacteria can still be passed along to the baby.

In an effort to combat the ongoing issue, the Kern County Public Health Department put on an enhanced surveillance process last year to try to treat pregnant women early enough to prevent the spread to their babies.

"We're actually following and sending nurses out to the homes of every female that's been diagnosed with syphilis and especially the pregnant females," said Smith. "We had actually 58 moms that delivered this past year, and 30 of those were prevented before they delivered."

The main thing Smith said they are trying to stress is the importance of prenatal care.

"When you go in for your first prenatal visit you get all the blood work done," she said. "One of those tests is a syphilis test."

The goal of that is to detect the disease in pregnant women so they can be treated at least one month before the baby is born. Smith said getting the diagnosed women to receive full treatment is one of the biggest challenges.

"They have to come back for three different shots, seven days apart," she said.

Other Central Valley communities are also seeing the increase in syphilis cases, according to Smith.

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