Symptomatic congenital syphilis in a tertiary neonatal unit in Cape Town, South Africa: High morbidity and mortality in a preventable disease

S Pillay, L J Tooke


Background. Despite preventive measures and effective treatment, congenital syphilis continues to impact significantly on neonatal morbidity and mortality. There has been no recent South African (SA) published literature reviewing congenital syphilis, particularly in the context of a tertiary neonatal setting.

Objectives. To describe the clinical features of symptomatic neonates with congenital syphilis and to identify modifiable patient, clinical and health facility factors that contributed to syphilis infection.

Methods. All positive serological tests for syphilis performed in neonates at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH), Cape Town, SA, between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2013 were obtained. Folders were reviewed, and neonates with clinical signs of congenital syphilis were included.

Results. Of 50 symptomatic neonates, 19 (38%) died. Twenty-eight mothers (56%) were unbooked and therefore received no antenatal care. Most mothers (98%) were inadequately treated. Health worker-related failures included poor notification and partner tracing as well as failure to recheck syphilis serology after 32 weeks’ gestation in mothers who initially tested negative. Thirty-four neonates required intensive care unit admission. Two significant predictors of mortality were 1-minute and 5-minute Apgar scores <5. Hydrops fetalis was an independent risk factor for mortality, as were moderate to severely abnormal cranial ultrasound scan findings.

Conclusions. Congenital syphilis in neonates admitted to the GSH neonatal unit was associated with substantial morbidity and mortality. The modifiable factors identified represent inadequate antenatal healthcare and health system failures. These factors are longstanding, highlighting the need to establish governance and audit processes and address the continuing socioeconomic and sociocultural barriers that mothers face as a way forward in ultimately eliminating this entirely preventable disease.


Authors' affiliations

S Pillay, Department of Neonatology, Groote Schuur Hospital and Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

L J Tooke, Department of Neonatology, Groote Schuur Hospital and Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

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Symptomatic congenital syphilis; Outcomes; Morbidity; Mortality

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2019;109(9):652-658. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2019.v109i9.13817

Article History

Date submitted: 2019-08-28
Date published: 2019-08-28

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