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New Mexico updates legislation around congenital syphilis

State wants to bring testing guidelines up to date with CDC standards
A doctor performs an ultrasound scan on a pregnant woman at a hospital in Chicago.

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Department of Health announced a change in legislation that is intended to combat congenital syphilis.

The update in legislation comes less than a month after the Department of Health ordered increased screening for syphilis in pregnant women in an effort to prevent the disease from transmitting to the infant.

Congenital means the disease is transferred to the baby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, congenital syphilis has increased every year since 2012 with New Mexico having the eighth highest rate of congenital syphilis cases in the U.S.

According to New Mexico Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Kathy Kunkel, the congenital version is preventable with screenings, testing and treatments of those who are pregnant and have syphilis.

“This order will assure medical practitioners, with patient consent, will make testing for syphilis part of the standard prenatal care provided to their patients,” Kunkel said.

The current law requires women to be tested only at the first prenatal visit as is written in the language of the original bill. Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics and Joanne Ferrary, both sponsors of the updated bill, want the language that hasn’t been changed in 40 years to be updated. That update would specifically remove the medical suggestions from the bill and instead direct physicians and patients to the CDC for its recommendation, which calls for testing on three separate occasions during pregnancy.

“By increasing screening for pregnant women, we will be able to detect new cases occurring later in pregnancy and treat mothers so that their babies are not born with congenital syphilis,” Ferrary said.

Stefanics said she is sponsoring the syphilis legislation so the Department of Health will update the statutes.

Stefanics said the CDC requires states to report syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV and hepatitis.

“We are also a dual reporting state, meaning both providers and labs must report infectious disease,” Stefanics said. “We keep the highest confidentiality standards for these diseases – in some respects, we are more stringent than the CDC.”

While the numbers for congenital syphilis are “just a few dozen cases statewide,” according to a spokesman for the Department of Health, the Department of Health came out with a study that said the highest rate seen was in Lea County with 40 cases per 100,000 people. In second, the neighboring county of McKinley had 28 cases per 100,000 people.

Statewide, New Mexico had the eighth highest rate of infants born with congenital syphilis in the United States, with 10 cases of congenital syphilis reported to NMDOH. By Dec. 30, 2019, that number rose to 23 cases.

Ferrary, who is also a member and vice chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said she supports the bill for its preventive measures.

“I support evidence-based prevention efforts, especially when they mitigate severe health complications or even death,” Ferrary said.


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