Syphilis case increase sparks Colorado public health order

April 19, 2024

An alarming spike in syphilis cases in Colorado prompted a statewide public health order, particularly focused on treating the disease among pregnant woman and babies.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) announced Thursday the state would implement more measures to combat congenital syphilis, which has “increased dramatically” over the past several years.

The main focus of the initiative is helping pregnant women and their babies receive testing and treatment, he said during an announcement.

“People should know that this is a treatable disease for adults. A course of penicillin generally does the trick. Some adults have very mild symptoms, there’s a lack of diagnosis, others who were symptomatic and treated with penicillin,” Polis said. “But the real danger here is for newborns.”

“The fatality rate is significant for newborns who are born to a mothers who has syphilis,” he continued.

According to the state, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 40 percent of babies who have untreated congenital syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection.

Polis said the state has seen the number of infections increase “sevenfold” in the last five years. In 2018, the state had 1,084 cases; in 2023, it had 3,266.

State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said the consistent rise in cases across the state “means that we have a statewide congenital syphilis epidemic.”

According to the announcement, Colorado will work with the state departments of Corrections, Public Health and Environment, and Public Safety to minimize cases in correctional facilities.

The state will work to make sure testing for syphilis is covered without co-pays for the majority of insured Coloradans, including those with Medicaid.

The state will also increase its education about the importance of testing for syphilis and the disease’s treatment because it is possible to have syphilis and not know it.