Houston Health Department reports syphilis outbreak, begins rapid community outreach response

Rise in cases among women, congenital syphilis attributed to outbreak 

HOUSTON – The Houston Health Department is reporting a syphilis outbreak responsible for a 128 percent increase in cases among women and a nine-fold rise in congenital syphilis in Houston and Harris County.

The department will launch a rapid outreach response that includes increasing screening opportunities, targeting hotspots and mobilizing community partners to curb new infections.

Statistics from the department indicate new infections rose from 1,845 in 2019 to 2,905 in 2022, a 57 percent increase.

Cases among women totaled 674 cases in 2022, up from 295 cases in 2019. Congenital syphilis soared from 16 cases in 2016 to 151 cases in 2021, the latest year for which statistics are available.

“It is crucial for pregnant women to seek prenatal care and syphilis testing to protect themselves from an infection that could result in the deaths of their babies,” said Marlene McNeese Ward, deputy assistant director in the department’s Bureau of HIV/STI and Viral Hepatitis Prevention. “A pregnant woman needs to get tested for syphilis three times during her pregnancy.”

Testing is recommended at a woman’s first prenatal visit, during the third trimester and at delivery. Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can result in a stillbirth or a baby’s death soon after birth.

In response to the outbreak, the department will wave all clinical fees for sexually transmitted infections at its health centers.

It also will expand the use of its HIV/STD mobile clinic to increase the number of community screening sites and set up in areas considered hotspots, selected from disease monitoring and case management data. The ramp up will allow the department to intensify its education, testing and treatment throughout Houston and Harris County.

The department is also working with medical providers and collaborating with community-based partners to increase awareness of the outbreak and enhance testing and treatment.

People with syphilis are at increased risk of HIV infection due to the painless sore that develops at the site of sexual contact during the disease’s primary stage. New syphilis infections are known as primary, secondary and early latent syphilis.

Syphilis is easily treatable with antibiotics. However, without adequate treatment, syphilis infection progresses to the secondary stage when one or more areas of the skin break into a rash – usually non-itchy and most typically on the palms and soles.

Other second stage symptoms can also include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue.

In most cases, syphilis goes undetected because the signs and symptoms are misinterpreted or simply unnoticed. If untreated, Treponema Pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis, remains in the body and begins to damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints.

The department reminds health care providers to immediately report syphilis infections so it can expedite testing and treatment to the sexual contacts of people with the disease. Physicians seeking medical information about people with a history of syphilis infection can call the department at 855-264-8463.

The department recommends syphilis testing to:

  • Pregnant women at their initial prenatal visit, third trimester and delivery (required by state law),
  • People who have had unprotected sex
  • Men with anonymous sex partners
  • People with multiple sex partners
  • People recently diagnosed with any other sexually transmitted disease such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia or HIV.

Information on testing sites and syphilis is available by calling the department’s HIV/STD information hotline at 832-393-5010.