JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Among a nationwide increase in sexually transmitted infection rates, these numbers are even higher in Mississippi. 

From 2017 to 2021, Primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis rates rose 72% in the US and rose 170% in Mississippi. During that same time, Congenital syphilis rates per 100,000 live births more than tripled nationwide from 24 to 78. It increased from 3 to 182 in Mississippi, an over 60-fold increase. 

P&S syphilis are the most infectious stages of syphilis. Congenital syphilis occurs when syphilis is passed to a baby during pregnancy. Both types carry their health risks. 


According to the CDC, There are four stages of syphilis (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it does happen, the disease may damage internal organs and result in death. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose tertiary syphilis with the help of multiple tests. 

Each stage has different signs and symptoms. Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis), the eye (ocular syphilis), or the ear (otosyphilis) at any of the four stages. 

You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

You cannot get syphilis through casual contact with objects, such as:

  • toilet seats
  • doorknobs
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs
  • bathtubs
  • sharing clothing or eating utensils

Syphilis is curable with the right antibiotics from your healthcare provider. However, treatment might not undo any damage the infection can cause. Syphilis can be contracted again. 

Congenital syphilis

CS can have major health impacts on babies. Its impact depends on how long the mother has had syphilis and if — or when — she got treatment for the infection.

CS can cause:

  • Miscarriage (losing the baby during pregnancy),
  • Stillbirth (a baby born dead),
  • Prematurity (a baby born early),
  • Low birth weight or
  • Death shortly after birth.

For babies born with CS, CS can cause:

  • Deformed bones,
  • Severe anemia (low blood count),
  • Enlarged liver and spleen,
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes),
  • Brain and nerve problems, like blindness or deafness,
  • Meningitis and
  • Skin rashes.

A baby with CS might not have any symptoms at birth. Without treatment, the baby may still develop serious problems. These health problems often develop in the first few weeks after birth, but may also happen years later.

Babies who do not get treatment for CS and develop symptoms later on can die from the infection. They may also be developmentally delayed or have seizures. 

CS cases have more than tripled in recent years, with more than 2,000 cases reported in 2021 alone. This is the highest number reported in one year since 1994.

All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis the first time they see their doctor for health care during pregnancy. Some women should be tested more than once during pregnancy. Talk with your doctor about the number of syphilis cases in your area and your risk for syphilis to determine if you should be tested again at the beginning of the third trimester, and again when your baby is born. In Mississippi, prenatal syphilis screening is not required at any point. 

Keep in mind that one can have syphilis and not know it. Many people with syphilis do not have any symptoms. Syphilis symptoms may be very mild, or be similar to signs of other health problems. The only way to know for sure if you have syphilis is to get tested. 

How to reduce the risk of contracting syphilis

If you are sexually active, the following things can lower your chances of getting syphilis:

  • Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis and does not have syphilis.
  • Use latex condoms correctly every time you have sex. Although condoms can prevent transmission of syphilis by preventing contact with a sore, you should know that sometimes syphilis sores occur in areas not covered by a condom, and contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.

Also, talk with your doctor about your risk for syphilis. Have an open and honest conversation with your doctor about your sexual history and STD testing. Your doctor can give you the best advice on any testing and treatment that you may need.

Remember that it’s possible to get syphilis and not know it, because sometimes the infection causes no symptoms, only very mild symptoms, or symptoms that mimic other illnesses.