New Mexico had the second highest syphilis rate in the United States in 2022 and ranked highest in the nation for congenital syphilis – an infection that occurs when a mother passes syphilis on to their fetus through pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacteria that produces sores on the infected person. If left untreated, the bacteria can invade the nervous system, according to the CDC. Syphilis cases are rare but increasing, as seen in CDC data.
Michelle Bardack, a primary care physician at the University of New Mexico Student Health and Counseling Center (SHAC), said she is concerned about the rise of syphilis cases on campus at UNM.
SHAC serves as a location on campus where students can receive testing and sexually transmitted disease (STD) medication. It is also a place where patients can talk to physicians without the fear of any judgment, Bardack said.
“The good news is that syphilis is easily treated. If you are caught in the early and secondary stages, it's very easily treated with a well-known antibiotic called penicillin,” Bardack said.
In response to increasing rates of syphilis, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) renewed and updated a public health order in October 2023. The order increases syphilis testing for all pregnant individuals and recommends that all adults aged 18-50 be tested at least once before October 2024.
Janine Waters, the STD program manager for the NMDOH, leads a team that monitors syphilis reports and provides STD guidance.
“We have a higher rate of syphilis than we've had, as does almost every other state in the country. But the biggest increase we've seen is in congenital syphilis,” Waters said. “Congenital syphilis is definitely impacting New Mexico pretty harshly in our opinion. We're working pretty hard to make sure we can help mitigate that.”
Congenital syphilis can cause significant birth defects, miscarriages and infant mortality. 2022 saw a 660% increase in congenital syphilis cases over the past five years, according to the NMDOH.
Congenital syphilis can be treated to greatly reduce problems with pregnancy. In 2022, a lack of timely testing and adequate treatment contributed to almost 90% of congenital syphilis cases within the US, according to a report by the CDC.
“We just developed a protocol for Doxycycline … You can take that medication after an exposure that you're concerned about and that may help stave off the infection,” Waters said.
Taking Doxycycline, an antibiotic, 72 hours after sex can reduce the likelihood of being infected with syphilis by two-thirds, according to a study on people assigned male at birth who have sex with men, funded by the National Institutes of Health.
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Nationally, 207,255 syphilis cases were reported in 2022 — the greatest number of reported cases since 1950, according to the CDC.
The NMDOH has begun several initiatives, in addition to the public health order, that attempt to reduce syphilis cases in New Mexico. One initiative is a media campaign that encourages pregnant individuals to get tested for syphilis, Waters said.
The NMDOH also partners with communities with higher syphilis rates. In these communities, rapid syphilis testing is offered at harm reduction sites, Waters said.
“In public health, diseases and deficiencies affect minorities more harshly than they do others. So we try to focus on making sure everybody's got access to care,” Waters said.
The results of these initiatives remain unclear due to the nature of syphilis. The infection’s discreet symptoms can delay results as many people do not know they have syphilis until they get tested, Waters said.
While it is unclear why New Mexico has such an alarming syphilis rate, Waters identified one possible reason.
“We are a rural state, and some people have to drive pretty far for health care. If they're not feeling bad, and they're not noticing anything wrong with them, they may not go to the doctor and get tested. It could have something to do with that,” Waters said.
Expanding health care access to rural New Mexicans is a goal of the NMDOH, Waters said.
“Our message is to get tested. We would like everyone to get a test at least once a year, regardless of what they think their risk is … If you don't test, you don't know,” Waters said.
Nate Bernard is a beat reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo