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The number of Colorado babies born with syphilis is rising, and health officials are blaming riskier sexual behaviors related to the opioid crisis and social-dating apps including Tinder.

The numbers are still small — five newborns so far this year — but they have increased quickly enough to sound an alarm among public health officials. Nationwide, diagnosis of syphilis in newborns has more than doubled in the last five years.

What’s particularly frustrating to doctors is that’s it’s preventable, as syphilis is easily treated with penicillin. “It’s unnecessary in this day and age for any child to have to go through that,” said Dr. Daniel Shodell, deputy director of the Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology Division at the state health department. “One hundred percent of these cases are preventable.”

Reported congenital syphilis cases and rates of reported cases in Colorado from 2013-2017. (Provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

The bacterial infection is passed from mother to baby in utero through the placenta and can cause stillbirth, skeletal deformities, developmental delays, and vision and hearing problems. The number of cases of congenital syphilis — meaning that a baby is born with it — totaled 18 in Colorado from 2013 through this fall. There was just one case in 2013, then five last year and five already in 2018.

None of the babies in Colorado has died from syphilis, but the long-term effects of their diagnoses are unclear since it can take months or years for problems to arise, Shodell said. Some are born with a rash and fever but have no long-lasting effects.

Colorado law requires that pregnant women are tested for syphilis. But doctors should test women at higher risk for contracting syphilis two more times — in the third trimester and just before delivery, Shodell recommends. And pregnant women and physicians should talk more openly about whether the woman has more than one sexual partner or a new sexual partner, he said.

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Also, people should use condoms, the health department advised.

The health department is not pushing to strengthen the law regarding syphilis screening for pregnant women, saying a solution is more likely to come through raising awareness and decreasing the stigma of talking about sexual behavior. “It is critical that Coloradans talk about this with their partners and with their physicians,” Shodell said.

Syphilis is not the only sexually transmitted disease on the rise, though it is the most dangerous to newborn babies. Cases of gonorrhea rose by more than 40 percent in Colorado from 2016 to 2017. Syphilis, which more often affects men in urban areas, was up 10.5 percent, and chlamydia, which disproportionately affects young women, was up 5.6 percent.

A map of rates of reported gonorrhea cases by County in Colorado for 2017. Rates are marked “suppressed” for counties with less than three cases or a population less than 15,000. (Provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

In all, there were more than 36,000 cases of sexually transmitted diseases in Colorado in 2017, which is record-setting. The reasons are not entirely known, Shodell said, but experts consider the nation’s heroin epidemic and dating apps that lead to casual sex among the culprits. It’s also possible there are more positive tests for sexually transmitted diseases because more people have health care, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

The Colorado babies born with syphilis are mostly in rural areas, health officials said, but could not give more specifics due to health privacy laws.


Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...