01/03/2013 06:56 GMT | Updated 30/04/2013 06:12 BST

Breaking the Sound of Silence on Syphilis

In more than twenty years of working in the field of global medicine, no disease I have encountered is as senseless as congenital syphilis. I will always remember a field trip to Haiti a few years back when I encountered a woman who had experienced the trauma of multiple stillbirths as a result of contracting syphilis when pregnant. Yet neither she nor her husband had any idea that this was the reason why their children never lived. This encounter will stay with me always as a reminder that for all the progress and investment in antenatal programmes around the world, and in spite of all our efforts, babies like hers are still dying needlessly.

Today marks the first birthday of the Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership (GCSP), a group I helped form with Save the Children, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As we count down to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, we are working to mobilise the global health community, donors, policy makers and governments to help relegate syphilis to the history books.

Syphilis is said to have affected some of the great writers and artists of history including Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh and Manet. Yet, despite being depicted in some of the most popular artwork and literature of our time, it affects more pregnant women than HIV and it kills over 400,000 babies a year. Congenital syphilis' impact on pregnant women and babies across the developing world is falling on deaf ears.

But the GCSP knows that congenital syphilis is a winnable battle. Today, with millions of dollars invested in Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programmes for HIV, more pregnant women have access to maternal healthcare than ever before. The recent availability of a dual HIV-syphilis rapid test means that we can now easily integrate syphilis screening into PMTCT programmes. A simple rapid test and a single dose of widely-available penicillin we can treat syphilis and prevent pregnant women passing it onto their unborn babies.

Now all that remains to end congenital syphilis is the will, the funding and the support of the global health community to enable delivery of these lifesaving tools.

To coincide with the partnership's first birthday, Dr. Jeffrey D. Klausner, Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles today publishes 'The sound of silence: missing the opportunity to save lives at birth' in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO).

We have but two years until the end of the Millennium Development Goals and an opportunity to make progress on goal four to reduce child mortality by eliminating congenital syphilis. Today, the GCSP joins Jeffrey's call to arms for the global health community, donors and governments to break their sound of silence on this devastating disease.