WHO RECOMMENDATION

Pregnant women may get syphilis tests

Most parts of the world, including Kenya, are seeing an upsurge of disease

In Summary

•WHO encourages countries to test mothers for Hepatitis B, which can be spread to a baby during childbirth

•First sign of syphilis infection is a small short-lived ulcer which appears several weeks after sex

Mothers at the Pumwani Maternity ward.
Mothers at the Pumwani Maternity ward.

Women attending antenatal clinics could be tested for both HIV and syphilis if the government adopts new recommendations.

The World Health Organisation says this will help eliminate mother-to-child transmission of both infections.

Many countries are seeing an upsurge of syphilis, which can be fatal if untreated. 

 
 

Syphilis is caused by bacteria and is spread through unprotected sex and from an infected woman to her baby during birth.

"The move can help close the testing and treatment gap and combat the second leading cause of stillbirths globally," the WHO says in its new recommendations, issued last week.

Ten HIV high-burden countries, including Kenya, account for 40 per cent of pregnant women and newborns affected by syphilis.

The WHO further encouraged countries to also test mothers for Hepatitis B, which can also be spread to a baby during childbirth.

The first sign of syphilis infection is a small short-lived ulcer which appears several weeks after the sexual encounter.

If the infection is untreated over many years, it can spread to the brain and be fatal.

Most parts of the world, including Kenya, are seeing an upsurge of syphilis among other sexually transmitted infections thought to have been under control already.

 
 

Medics blame the upsurge partly to changes in sexual behaviour. More people are also attending STI clinics, meaning more cases of syphilis are being diagnosed, which can also partly explain the rise.

According to WHO estimates, two million pregnant women each year are infected with syphilis globally. Of those, 1.2 million will transmit the infection to their newborns.

Syphilis in pregnancy contribute to 650,000 foetal and neo-natal deaths each year in developing countries.

The new WHO consolidated guidelines on HIV testing services also recommend other approaches to increase testing for HIV.

These include self-testing, based on new evidence that people who are at higher HIV risk and not testing in clinical settings are more likely to be tested if they can access HIV self-tests.

“Saving lives from HIV starts with testing,” says Dr Rachel Baggaley, WHO’s team lead for HIV Testing, Prevention and Populations. “These new recommendations can help countries to accelerate their progress and respond more effectively to the changing nature of their HIV epidemics.”

The WHO also recommended social network-based HIV testing to reach key populations, who are at high risk but have less access to services.

These include men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers, transgender population and people in prisons.