Congenital syphilis: still a serious, under-diagnosed threat for children in resource-poor countries

World J Pediatr. 2010 May;6(2):125-31. doi: 10.1007/s12519-010-0028-z. Epub 2010 May 21.


Background: With 700,000 to 1.5 million new cases annually, congenital syphilis remains a major infectious cause of morbidity and mortality in neonates, infants and children in resource-poor countries. We therefore analyzed the extent of congenital syphilis in the pediatric patient population at our rural hospital in Tanzania.

Methods: For this retrospective analysis, from January 1, 1998 to August 31, 2000, all cases of congenital syphilis were collected from the medical records of the neonatal and pediatric department at Haydom Lutheran Hospital in rural northern Tanzania. Age, sex, weight, clinical signs and symptoms, venereal disease research laboratory (VDRL) results of mother and/or child, hemoglobin concentration, treatment, and outcome were recorded and analyzed.

Results: Fourteen neonates and infants were included. The earlier the diagnosis, the more it rested on maternal data because the presentation of neonatal congenital syphilis resembled neonatal sepsis. Syphilitic skin lesions were only seen in the post-neonatal age group. VDRL results were positive in 11 of the 14 mothers, and in 4 of the infants. Anemia was common in older infants. No patient showed signs of central nervous system involvement. Two patients died, and the remaining were cured after standard treatment with procaine penicillin.

Conclusions: Highlighting the variable picture of congenital syphilis, this report demonstrates how difficult it is to make a correct diagnosis by solely history and clinical presentation in a resource-poor setting. Hence false-positive and false-negative diagnoses are common, and clinicians have to maintain a high index of suspicion in diagnosing congenital syphilis. Therefore, an important approach to control and finally eliminate congenital syphilis as a major public health problem will be universal on-site syphilis screening of all pregnant women at their first antenatal visit and immediate treatment for those who test positive.

MeSH terms

  • Anemia / epidemiology
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Developing Countries
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Penicillin G Procaine / therapeutic use
  • Pregnancy
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Syphilis, Congenital / diagnosis
  • Syphilis, Congenital / drug therapy
  • Syphilis, Congenital / epidemiology*
  • Tanzania / epidemiology


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Penicillin G Procaine