Regional initiative targets syphilis

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) launched a new regional plan of action to eliminate congenital syphilis from the Americas during the Global Health Council conference "Youth and Health: Generation on the Edge," held June 1 to 4 in Washington, D.C.

Syphilis is a serious public health problem in the Americas and particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, where PAHO estimates that more than 330,000 pregnant women in the region have the disease but are not receiving treatment.

Without treatment, those women will give birth to some 110,000 babies with congenital syphilis, while a similar number of pregnancies will end in miscarriage or stillbirths. Unless they are treated, babies who are born with the infection—whether or not they present symptoms—can suffer developmental delays, organ damage and even death. Yet a single dose of penicillin—costing less than a soft drink—can prevent this.

The United States has recently seen an increase in the number of syphilis cases. More than 32,000 cases were reported in 2002, an increase of 12.4 percent over 2001. The incidence among U.S. men is 3.5 times greater than among women, and the number of cases continues to rise, particularly among men who have sex with men.

Few countries in the hemisphere have sustained, coordinated efforts to eliminate syphilis. While most of the region's countries have the screening capability to detect syphilis in pregnant women, few apply it systematically, says Julia Valderrama, a PAHO expert on sexually transmitted diseases.

Lack of information is also a problem. For this reason, PAHO is developing regional guidelines for action based on epidemiological data from its member countries, as well as conducting a study of maternal syphilis in three countries: Argentina, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.

In the Global Health Council conference, experts emphasized the importance of raising the profile of syphilis on the international health agenda within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals, where anti-syphilis efforts support the goals of reducing infant mortality, improving maternal health and fighting HIV/AIDS.

The Newsletter of the Pan American Health Organization

This article is reproduced under an agreement with the Pan American Health Organization.

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