Key messages

  • Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI). The number of people with infectious syphilis in Victoria has been increasing over the past five years in both men and women.
  • Congenital syphilis occurs when infection passes from a mother to her baby during the pregnancy or at the time of birth.
  • Congenital syphilis can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. It can also cause other serious health problems in babies including organ, brain or nerve damage.
  • This condition can be prevented by having protected sex with a condom. If pregnant, appropriate testing and treatment of syphilis is vital to prevent congenital syphilis.
  • All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis as part of routine antenatal screening in the first trimester. The risk of contracting syphilis should also be discussed to determine whether further testing at 28 to 32 weeks, and again at delivery is needed.
  • Babies born to mothers with syphilis need to be tested and followed up with advice from a paediatrician.
  • Anyone diagnosed with syphilis should encourage all their sexual partners (both casual and regular) from the last few months to be checked by a doctor.
  • Syphilis is treated with penicillin. It is important to have repeat blood tests to check that the treatment has worked.

What is the issue

Untreated or inadequately treated syphilis in a pregnant woman can result in mother to child transmission of infection, causing congenital syphilis in the baby. This is a serious public health problem that has re-emerged in Victoria.

Syphilis occurring in pregnancy requires prompt treatment and follow up to prevent serious adverse consequences in the baby.

What are the symptoms

Not all people with syphilis have symptoms. If symptoms are mild, they may go unnoticed so not everyone with syphilis seeks medical advice. Untreated syphilis may lead to severe health problems affecting many parts of the body and women can pass on the infection to their babies either before or during birth.

Congenital syphilis may result in miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, low birth weight or neonatal death. A baby with congenital syphilis may not have any symptoms at birth, but without treatment, may develop serious problems. They can also develop symptoms later and can die from the infection.

Who is at risk

Any baby whose mother has syphilis during pregnancy or birth is at risk of congenital syphilis. This is why all women should be tested, and those at increased risk of syphilis should get re-tested at 28 to 32 weeks of pregnancy, and again at the time of birth of their baby. The following groups are at increased risk:

  • Women with more than one sexual partner.
  • Women whose male partners have sex with men.
  • Sex workers who do not get regularly tested for STIs.
  • Women of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin.
  • Women who inject drugs.
  • Women with overseas sexual contacts particularly from countries where STIs are common.

How is it transmitted?

Syphilis is transmitted through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex with a person who has recently become infected. It can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact if the syphilis rash is present.

Congenital syphilis occurs when infection passes from a mother to her baby during the pregnancy or at the time of birth.

How can it be prevented?

The most important preventive measure against syphilis and congenital syphilis is having protected sex with a condom. Being tested and adequately treated for syphilis in pregnancy can prevent congenital syphilis.

Is there a treatment?

Early treatment of syphilis with penicillin is effective. Babies who have congenital syphilis need to be treated right away or they can develop serious health problems. It’s also important that anyone treated for syphilis and babies treated for congenital syphilis get follow-up care to make sure that the treatment worked.

More information

Information for health professionals

Information for consumers