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Tribes Launch Urgent Syphilis Response Effort in Partnership with Health Board and CDC

South Dakota, April 9, 2024 – The Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have united to address a significant surge in syphilis cases impacting their communities and the broader Great Plains Region. From April 15 to April 26, teams of public health experts will conduct intensive contact tracing efforts across all three reservations, aiming to curb the escalating rates of this resurgent disease.

These on-site contact tracing initiatives at locations on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations are a direct response to proactive measures taken by the three tribal nations, in collaboration with the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local tribal health programs, to directly curb syphilis rates in their communities.

Led by public health experts from the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center and the CDC, these teams will work directly in communities to ensure the availability of necessary medications, with Tribal Public Health Nurses on hand to administer treatments. The teams will actively seek out residents for treatments.

Recent data from the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center has revealed a staggering escalation in syphilis rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Great Plains region. In 2020, syphilis rates mirrored the national average, but by 2022, these rates had surged by a remarkable 1,865%, significantly surpassing the 154% increase seen nationally. Alarmingly, cases of congenital syphilis have also spiked, with certain areas reporting rates where more than one in every forty American Indian and Alaska Native babies born in 2022 were diagnosed with the condition, constituting 2.5% of all Native births in those communities.

Despite the severity of this crisis, public health resources have struggled to keep pace with the scale of the challenge. Between 2020 and 2023, frontline health workers faced a nearly nineteen-fold increase in syphilis cases without a corresponding increase in funding or workforce capacity.

Nationwide, syphilis infections reached a 70-year high in 2022, according to the latest data from the CDC, coinciding with a shortage of penicillin, the most effective treatment. Congenital syphilis, the transmission of syphilis from a pregnant person to a baby, has similarly spiraled out of control, leading to significant health complications and even fatalities. In 2022, the CDC recorded 231 stillbirths and 51 infant deaths caused by syphilis out of over 3,700 reported congenital syphilis cases.

In response to these alarming trends, the Great Plains Tribal Leaders’ Health Board and tribal leaders from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa have urged Federal Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to declare a public health emergency in their states. Such a declaration would expand staffing, funding, and access to crucial contact tracing data across the region.

Native Americans, who are more likely to reside in rural areas far from hospital obstetric units, face unique challenges in accessing prenatal care and syphilis testing and treatment before delivery. These challenges stem from a combination of limited services, cultural misunderstandings within healthcare settings, and concerns about reporting to authorities. The closure of labor and delivery wards in rural hospitals has further exacerbated these difficulties.