By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - 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.
A team of researchers led by Rosanna Peeling and David Mabey at the LSHTM found in a study due to be published soon that introducing rapid tests to increase access to syphilis screening was both feasible and cost effective.
"This ... research has shown that new simple tests for syphilis can be effectively introduced all over the world, from urban areas in China and Peru to remote villages in East Africa and even more remote indigenous populations deep in the Amazon rain forest," Piot said.
The syphilis partnership includes several global health and development groups, among them the Gates Foundation, Save the Children, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the LSHTM.
Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, said that while international efforts were succeeding in reducing the number of deaths in older children in the under five-year-old bracket, death rates of babies in their first month of life had not fallen.
With less than three years to go to reach the millennium development goals set in 2000 by the international community to improve health and reduce poverty by 2015, the partnership said it wanted a new three-year push help countries fight syphilis.
"By failing to ensure that all pregnant women are screened for syphilis and provided with timely treatment we are missing a huge opportunity to save lives," Forsyth said. ($1 = 0.6314 British pounds)