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The Fight Against Syphilis

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The greatest tragedy is surely for a mother to bury her child. But imagine the grief of passing on a deadly disease to your child - and being powerless to stop it? An estimated one million babies die every year from congenital syphilis - deaths that could be prevented by just a single shot of penicillin.

Global efforts to reduce the number of child deaths for under-fives has seen the number fall - two million fewer than were dying as recently as four years ago. But the number of newborn babies who die before they reach one month old isn't falling as quickly. Tackling syphilis could dramatically reduce these deaths.

If untreated during pregnancy, syphilis can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, low birth weight and the death of newborns. It is estimated that two million pregnant women are infected with syphilis every year and that over half of these pass it onto their unborn child. In Africa alone, this causes almost 400,000 stillbirths and newborn deaths every year.

Yet stillbirths, the majority of which happen in the developing world, aren't included in statistics on child mortality. And if they aren't being included the scale of the problem is overlooked and opportunities to tackle the problem are missed.

By failing to ensure that all pregnant women are screened for syphilis and provided with timely treatment as part of routine antenatal care we are missing a huge opportunity to save lives.

Diagnosing and treating syphilis before 28 weeks of pregnancy - so ample time to do so - is cheap and easy to treat. A simple shot of penicillin costs less than a £1 per child.

That's why today in London, the Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership, a new partnership dedicated to tackling congenital syphilis, and on which I will sit along with organisations including The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Gates Foundation, is meeting for the first time. The actions that we need to take are clear.

We need to increase routine testing in pregnancy for syphilis alongside other conditions such as HIV and anaemia. We need to promote awareness about the importance of seeking early antenatal care and ensure that there are enough trained health workers available to provide this care and also to provide support during and after delivery. Finally, we need to prevent people from getting syphilis in the first place by ensuring that women and men have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and reduce the unmet need for family planning.

Save the Children is contributing to the fight against syphilis by integrating syphilis screening and treatment into our programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. We want governments and other partners to also do their part.

In the 21st century no child should die from syphilis and no mother should have to go through the tragedy of losing their child to a preventable disease. Progress we've made on tackling child mortality in the last few years must be built upon and tackling syphilis will do that.

Justin Forsyth is a member of the Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership and Chief Executive of Save the Children. www.savethechildren.org.uk

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