Reducing infant mortality: one easy way

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A new report suggests that a simple, inexpensive intervention could save up to one million newborn babies each year around the world: testing for and treating syphilis in pregnant women. Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can cause miscarriages, premature births, low birth weight, stillbirths, and death in newborn infants in fact, syphilis is the cause of nearly 400,000 stillbirths and newborn deaths per year in Africa alone, according to the World Health Organization. But these complications could be prevented if infected pregnant women received a simple, low-cost treatment during the first 28 weeks of gestation.

It would cost less than $1.50 to test a woman for syphilis in the early weeks of her pregnancy, reports the Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership. The test is quick, too, providing results in only 15 minutes. And treating the women who tested positive would take nothing more than a single dose of penicillin. Given these factors, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recommend that this screening and treatment be broadly implemented because of its major potential for saving lives as well as its cost-effectiveness and practicality, especially in developing countries.

Every year, around two million women with syphilis become pregnant, mainly in developing countries, and over half of these women will transmit the disease to their unborn infants. If outreach for pregnant women with syphilis could be carried out successfully, as this research suggests is possible, says ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross, it could affect a huge number of women and children. He notes that addressing infant mortality is a difficult task because of the wide spectrum of complex factors that affect a baby s health. Despite that, maternal syphilis is one of the easiest causes of infant mortality to treat, says Dr. Ross.