STD Awareness: What Does “Congenital Syphilis” Mean?

Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis

Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis

Congenital syphilis, for centuries a leading cause of infant mortality, is often thought of as an antique affliction, relegated to history books — but it is on the rise again. Between 2012 and 2014, there was a spike in congenital syphilis rates, which increased by 38 percent and are now the highest they’ve been in the United States since 2001. As of 2014, the last year for which we have data, more babies were born with syphilis than with HIV.

The word “congenital” simply means that the baby was born with syphilis after being infected in the womb. When an expecting mother has syphilis, the bacteria that cause the disease can cross the placenta to infect the fetus — and will do so 70 percent of the time. As many as 40 percent of babies infected with syphilis during pregnancy will be stillborn or will die soon after birth. It can also cause rashes, bone deformities, severe anemia, jaundice, blindness, and deafness. Congenital syphilis is especially tragic because it’s almost completely preventable, especially when expecting mothers have access to adequate prenatal care and antibiotics. Penicillin is 98 percent effective in preventing congenital syphilis when it is administered at the appropriate time and at the correct dosage.


More babies are being born with syphilis — but this trend can be reversed with wider access to prenatal care.


Incidence of congenital syphilis is growing across all regions of the country, but rates are highest in the South, followed by the West. Rates have also been increasing across ethnic groups, but, compared to white mothers, congenital syphilis rates are more than 10 times higher among African-American mothers and more than 3 times higher among Latina mothers, illustrating the need to increase access to prenatal care for all expecting mothers — and to ensure that this prenatal care is adequate.

Anyone receiving prenatal care should be screened for syphilis at their first visit, and some pregnant people — including those at increased risk or in areas where congenital syphilis rates are high — should be screened a second time at the beginning of the third trimester and again at delivery. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Which STDs Are Resistant to Antibiotics?

pillsYou’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that is resistant to methicillin, as well as pretty much every other antibiotic out there. MRSA is an example of evolution by natural selection — what didn’t kill its ancestors made them stronger, spawning a drug-resistant strain.


There are drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis.


Evolution is the force behind life’s diversity. Normally, diversity is a good thing — but when it comes to microbes that cause diseases like gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis, these organisms’ ability to evolve new defenses against our antimicrobial drugs isn’t good for us.

STDs have plagued us for millennia, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that we finally developed antibiotics, which gave us a powerful tool against many of our most formidable sexually transmitted foes. Suddenly, scourges like gonorrhea and syphilis could be quickly and easily treated with a dose of penicillin.

Problem solved, right? Nope. Enter evolution by natural selection. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Genetics and the Gonococcus

Illustration: CDC

Illustration: CDC

Ever since the discovery of effective antibacterial therapies less than a century ago, humans have been able to easily cure gonorrhea, the sexually transmitted scourge that laid waste to fallopian tubes and robbed newborns of vision. Most of us in the developed world have forgotten that this disease was once a leading cause of infertility in women and blindness in babies — and still is in much of the developing world.

Unfortunately, gonococci — the species of bacteria that cause gonorrhea — have been evolving resistance to every antibiotic we’ve thrown at them, including sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins. We have one remaining first-line gonorrhea treatment left: extended-spectrum cephalosporins, which include cefixime, which is taken orally, and ceftriaxone, which is administered as a shot — and resistance is emerging to those drugs, as well.


Gonococci don’t swap potato salad recipes at family reunions — they swap genetic material!


The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. Gonococci can acquire resistance to antibiotics in three ways.

First, a genetic mutation can endow bacteria with special antibiotic-fighting powers, making it harder for a drug like penicillin to attach to their cells and destroy them. Such a mutant is more likely to gain evolutionary traction if it finds itself in an antibiotic-drenched environment in which resistance to that drug allows it to “outcompete” other bacteria. Indeed, antibiotic resistance was first documented in the 1940s, just years after sulfonamides and penicillin were introduced as the first effective cures for gonorrhea. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The History of Syphilis

syphilisHave you ever heard that syphilis originated in the New World, and was imported to Europe by unwitting explorers? Some say it’s a fitting revenge for Europeans, who brought deadly diseases like smallpox and measles to the Americas. Others say that, while it’s an interesting hypothesis, it’s mostly speculation backed by some intriguing circumstantial evidence.

The predominating theory of syphilis’ origin is that it was transmitted from the Americas to Europe via sailors on Christopher Columbus’ ships — sailors who, in addition to other horrific acts, probably raped the natives of Hispaniola, from whom they could have contracted the infection. Historical records show that syphilis popped up in Europe in the last decade of the 1400s, coinciding with the return of Columbus and his crew — when Europe was deeply mired in war. With war came the far and wide travel of troops, who could have introduced the pathogen to prostitutes and other members of local populations.


In the era before antibiotics, syphilis was the world’s most feared sexually transmitted disease.


But we don’t know for certain that Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the West Indies in 1493. Some scholars point to ancient writings, from Biblical texts to Chinese records, that contain descriptions of diseases that are consistent with syphilis — though they might merely have described tuberculosis or leprosy. There are also pre-Columbian skeletons from Europe, Africa, and Asia that seem to exhibit evidence of syphilis infection — though diagnosing syphilis based on bone samples is problematic at best. Is it possible that syphilis had existed in the Old World all along, but didn’t become an epidemic until the wars of the Renaissance era allowed syphilis to conquer the continent?

Or perhaps the New World was home to a mild strain of the disease that mutated once it hit European soil. One team of researchers, studying Guyana’s remote Akwio tribe, discovered a disease that was a lot like syphilis, but was not an STD — it spread by skin-to-skin contact and infected about 1 in 20 children. Genetic analysis showed that it was caused by a bacteria that was closely related to the same bug that causes syphilis. Could Columbus’ men have picked up this transitional strain of bacteria and brought it back to Europe, where it mutated to evolve into the virulent pathogen we know today? Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea, Women, and the Pre-Antibiotic Era

Penicillin, the first cure for gonorrhea, was developed for mass production in the 1940s.

Penicillin, the first reliable cure for gonorrhea, was mass produced in the 1940s.

It’s Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the achievements of women worldwide — like Margaret Sanger, Rosalind Franklin, and Florence Nightingale, or contemporary heroes like Wangari Maathai. But it may also be a time to examine some of the sadder aspects of womanhood, including the increased burden gonorrhea imposes on women. While gonorrhea is no picnic for anyone, it wreaks the most havoc in female reproductive tracts. In fact, before antibiotics, gonorrhea was a leading cause of infertility — one 19th century physician attributed 90 percent of female infertility to gonorrhea. Not only that, but the effects of gonorrhea could seriously reduce a woman’s overall quality of life.


With gonorrhea becoming more resistant to antibiotics, the CDC warns of a return to the pre-antibiotic era.


Gonorrhea is described by written records dating back hundreds of years B.C. Ancient Greeks treated it with cold baths, massage, “cooling” foods, and vinegar. In the Middle Ages, Persians might have recommended sleeping in a cool bed with a metal plate over the groin. A bit to the west, Arabs tried to cure gonorrhea with injections of vinegar into the urethra. Kings of medieval England might have had their gonorrhea treated with injections of breast milk, almond milk, sugar, and violet oil.

Although gonorrhea is as ancient an STD as they come, because women rarely have symptoms while men usually do, for much of history it was mostly discussed in terms of men. The name gonorrhea itself derives from the ancient Greek words for “seed flow” — gonorrhea was thought to be characterized by the leakage of semen from the penis. This confusion inspired many misguided notions throughout the millennia, such as the idea that almost all women carried gonorrhea and transmitted it to their unwitting male partners. Continue reading

STD Awareness: An Update on Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea

Last year, we shared the fascinating and frightening story of the emergence of increasingly antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, an STD caused by the gonococci bacteria. The sexually transmitted scourge, which we only so recently reined in with the development of antibiotics, has been performing some genetic gymnastics to defeat almost every drug we’ve thrown at it. We douse it with certain drugs, and the bacterium literally spits them back out at us, and it inactivates other drugs by snapping the active molecules in half. Sulfa drugs, penicillins, tetracyclines, fluoroquinolones — they all make a gonococcus heave a bored sigh. Luckily, cephalosporins were still an effective treatment, but recently there have been reports of stubborn gonorrhea infections caused by the latest and greatest (and some might say most hated) strain of gonococci.


The bacteria that cause gonorrhea continue to evolve, right under our noses!


Well, the story isn’t over — just like the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, the tale is rapidly evolving. The latest class of antibiotics that the gonococci are chipping away at is the cephalosporin family, which includes several chemically related drugs that work in similar ways — and that can likewise be defeated by microbes in similar ways. Cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea was first reported in Japan and documented in a few European countries. The Japanese case that inspired the New England Journal of Medicine to declare last year that it was “time to sound the alarm” was an oral gonorrhea infection that was resistant to one member of the cephalosporin family: ceftriaxone.

Earlier this month, the prestigious medical journal JAMA reported the first North American sightings of gonorrhea that failed treatment with another cephalosporin: cefixime. Yeah, I know, you’d rather hear about Big Foot or UFO sightings, not evidence that something as real and unmythical as Gonorrhea 5.0 has landed in your back yard. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to protect yourself from it, and we’ll tell you all about it toward the end of this article. (Spoiler alert: It involves using condoms!) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Antibiotic-Resistant Syphilis

Treponema pallidum under a microscope. Image: Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr., CDC

The image to your right, with lively yellow splotches against a pale green background, is not a long-lost Jackson Pollack piece, and the dark squiggly lines aren’t strands of paint haphazardly splattered onto a canvas. In fact, those squiggly lines are magnified images of the spiral-shaped bacteria species Treponema pallidum. You might not have heard of T. pallidum, but you’ve probably heard of syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease (STD) that these bacteria cause. While syphilis isn’t as common as other STDs, like chlamydia and HPV, it’s still out there, and occasionally communities experience outbreaks. It’s always best for sexually active people to be screened for STDs and practice safer sex.


The evolution of syphilis strains that are resistant to certain antibiotics underscores the need to use antibiotics properly.


Syphilis can inflict serious long-term damage — in fact, before the introduction of antibiotics, syphilis was the worst STD out there! Known as the Great Pox when it descended upon Europe 500 years ago, it could cause large and painful boils. Eventually, natural selection led to T. pallidum’s evolution into a form with milder symptoms, which benefited the bacteria by enabling its less boil-ridden (and presumably more attractive) human hosts to spread it farther and wider. Nevertheless, the symptoms of syphilis, if present, still include infectious sores, and when the disease goes untreated, it can cause severe, possibly fatal, damage to the nervous system.

Back in the day, there were myriad inadequate “treatments” for syphilis, ranging from straight-up quackery to the use of partially effective but toxic chemicals such as mercury. But a century ago, in 1912, a new arsenic-based chemical called Neosalvarsan was hailed as a “magic bullet.” Unfortunately, this treatment took weeks or even more than a year to administer — and had dangerous side effects. Quack treatments continued to flourish, and it wasn’t until the widespread adoption of penicillin in the 1940s that an effective cure with few side effects was available.

But natural selection endures; in fact, by flooding T. pallidum’s habitat with certain antibiotics, we’ve created an environment that favors the organism’s evolution against us. While not as immediately threatening as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, syphilis has been quietly evolving resistance to some of the antibiotics we use to treat it. This underscores the importance of using antibiotics correctly and emphasizing safer-sex practices, such as using latex condoms during vaginal or anal intercourse and during oral contact with a penis. Continue reading