Image copyright Reuters Image caption After news of the surge of babies with congenital syphilis in the Dominican Republic broke on Thursday, Haitians in New York started to collect more syphilis-infected sex partners from those who’d come over from the country
The Dominican Republic has seen a dramatic surge in cases of syphilis, with the number more than doubling in five years. The Ministry of Health has warned of an extremely high risk of transmission in the country’s migrant population.
The increase has come at a time when an asylum agreement between the US and the Dominican Republic took effect.
A deal that affected as many as 70,000 Haitians who live in the US who became eligible for the Dominican Republic’s ‘cordial’ immigration services.
In her testimony in Washington, Gabrielle Toledano, an official with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services told Congress that her agency’s hands were tied by the agreement.
Several hundred babies have now been diagnosed with congenital syphilis, usually a disorder that kills in 10 to 20 years.
In 2001, just a few cases were diagnosed with the infection, and in 2003, that number reached a peak of 228 cases.
The rate has since dropped, but in 2017, it went back up to 540. The majority of cases were in women, with a wide range of infections including AIDs, gonorrhoea and chlamydia.
In the last few weeks, Haiti reported a surge in cases of syphilis, not among their nationals – most of which were picked up among migrants coming from the Dominican Republic.
Many have spoken about the mistrust, fear and disrespect they’ve experienced since news of the surge of babies with congenital syphilis broke on Thursday.
They say Haitians have been targeted unfairly and discriminated against since the immigration deal came into effect, and now there’s a chance for their own babies to get syphilis.
How it works
It is possible for someone to catch syphilis from a sex partner living in the Dominican Republic, or even travelling to the country. A virus breaks down and the bacteria is washed into the body from the throat, and eventually, the back.
It then spreads from the tonsils in the mouth, along the penis and if the person has a sexually-transmitted infection – such as HIV or gonorrhoea – it spreads to the penis, through the cervix. It goes on to spread throughout the body.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption For up to two years, doctors say, babies born with congenital syphilis may have lacked the necessary immune system function to fight off infection
Without antibiotics, or a straightforward cut – such as a break in the skin – infection takes more time.
More than one and a half years can pass before the baby’s immune system is strong enough to fight off infection. So babies born with congenital syphilis may have been born with underdeveloped immune systems, and missing vital chemicals that help fight the infection.
The epidemiologist, Dr. Vivan Vargas was part of the CDC research team that published a study in 2000 linking syphilis and syphilis-caused CVD (congenital ischaemic disease). He says the country’s HIV epidemic and then population explosion in the last decade has left the country susceptible to an outbreak.
Dr Vargas says it’s this new wave of cases which may signal an outbreak. As the country has increased the number of social protection measures for migrant workers and the requirement that they report any sexual infections, those at risk are targeted.
Additional reporting from Laura Kidd in Washington, DC.