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Experts: Syphilis tests could save a million babies

The lives of almost a million newborn babies could be saved every year if simple, cheap and rapid tests for syphilis were offered to pregnant women in poorer countries, global health experts said on Thursday.

The Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership, a group set up to help tackle the sexually transmitted disease, said testing women in early pregnancy would cost less than 1 pound ($1.58) per woman, and those who tested positive could be treated with a single dose of the cheap antibiotic penicillin.

"Screening and treating pregnant women for syphilis is one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives. New rapid tests are easy to use, ... affordable and give a result in just 15 minutes," said Peter Piot, chair of the partnership and director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

He said if screening were carried out routinely and women who needed treatment got it before 28 weeks' gestation, "no stillbirths or neonatal deaths would be due to syphilis."

"It's as simple as that," he told a briefing in London.

Experts estimate around 2 million pregnant women are infected with syphilis every year and more than half of those pass it on to their unborn children. According to the World Health Organization, between 3 and 15 percent of women of child-bearing age in developing countries have the disease.

If untreated during pregnancy, syphilis can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, low birth weight and in some cases death of newborns. In Africa alone, syphilis causes almost 400,000 stillbirths and newborn deaths each year.
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