Syphilis in Women

Nwachukwu was surprised when his pregnant wife told him her doctor wanted to see him. She said her antenatal test showed she had syphilis, and that he was also supposed to be treated. She also said her doctor raised the possibility that their baby may be affected. The mention of possible harm to the baby was all the encouragement Nwachukwu needed to see the doctor that week.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium, Treponema pallidum.

While syphilis can affect both men and women, there are additional risks during pregnancy. When left untreated, syphilis is responsible for more than 200,000 stillbirths and early foetal deaths every year. It also results in the death of over 90,000 newborns every year.

How does syphilis affect women?

Syphilis infection in women, as in men, can be divided into three stages, with each stage presenting different symptoms and complications. The first stage, known as primary syphilis, presents as painless sores or ulcers on the genitals. These ulcers may be singular or multiple, and they usually go unnoticed.

When primary syphilis is left untreated, it goes through the secondary and then the latent stage. It can then lead to tertiary syphilis. Organ damage, neurological disorders, and even death could result from untreated syphilis.

How does syphilis affect pregnant women?

Pregnancy presents a unique challenge. This is because the infection is transmissible to the foetus via the placenta. When this happens, it is called congenital syphilis and has severe effects on the foetus. It can lead to premature births, stillbirths, or severe health complications in newborns if left untreated. These effects are common in low-income settings where access to prenatal care and services is limited. It is said that syphilis testing is low in Africa, despite tests being cheap and quick. Have you been tested?

What happens when an unborn child is infected with syphilis?

An unborn child is infected with syphilis when an infected mother passes the bacterium to her unborn child. This infection can then spread to multiple organ systems in the foetus, causing serious complications. These complications range from deformities (tooth abnormalities), developmental delays, neurological disorders (deafness), and even foetal or neonatal death. These complications are preventable because syphilis can be easily treated. Unfortunately, syphilis has been rising globally while screening and treatment of pregnant women remain inadequate.

How can syphilis in pregnant women be prevented and controlled?

To combat congenital syphilis, syphilis in both non-pregnant and pregnant women must be addressed. Prevention and prompt treatment are key to achieving this.

Prenatal Screening: Routine screening for syphilis in pregnant women is crucial, especially early in pregnancy. Timely identification and treatment of infected mothers can prevent congenital syphilis. This screening is offered during antenatal clinics. 

Partner Screening and Treatment: To break the transmission cycle of syphilis, it is imperative to test and treat the sexual partners of infected women as well. This prevents reinfection.

Health Education: Educating people about syphilis will raise awareness of the disease and its modes of transmission. This will empower women to take proactive measures to protect their health and that of their children.



Syphilis is still very much around. Sexually active women should be tested for it, particularly during pregnancy. Stay safe, and keep your baby safe.


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