Monday, April 27, 2009

University of Albany's School of Public Health Hosts International Conference on Infectious Disease in Latin America

It costs 40 cents to provide the penicillin that can successfully treat a mother with syphilis during pregnancy and avoid the complications of congenital syphilis in her baby. Why then, has there been an increase in the number of children suffering from this disease in Latin America?

"It's an issue that is not really talked about. As with a lot of infectious diseases in Latin America, the problem is a lack of medication," said Suniah Ayub, a UAlbany graduate student in public health from Ashburn, Va. "There needs to be more consistent delivery of services to get rid of the problem."

Ayub is helping Carol Whittaker promote a May 1 international conference at UAlbany's School of Public Health on how to fight a reported increase in congenital syphilis in Latin America.

"We welcome this opportunity to provide a forum for discussion and generation of ideas for addressing the needs of those infected with the disease both in Latin American countries as well as immigrant populations in our own country," said School of Public Health Dean Philip C. Nasca. "This is a preventable disease and we are certain to learn a great deal about best practices which can guide us forward toward the reduction or elimination of congenital syphilis, a long-held goal."

Whittaker directs the Center for Global Health, which is providing new opportunities for UAlbany SPH students like Ayub to work on international health care issues.

Dr. Juan Carlos Salazar, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said congenital syphilis is "absolutely preventable and treatable. With a proper health care infrastructure, it shouldn't happen." Its presence is a marker of the state of a nation's health services.

And while infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS tend to draw public attention and funding, there is less awareness of congenital syphilis.

The consequences of not addressing the problem are deadly.

"If syphilis is unrecognized and untreated, a third of the pregnancies will result in fetal death, a third will end in an apparently healthy baby born with clinical evidence of congenital syphilis, and a third will have a healthy baby who is at high risk of developing complications from the disease later in life," said Dr. Alvaro Carrascal, assistant professor of epidemiology at UAlbany's School of Public Health.

Each year in Latin America, 330,000 pregnant women who have syphilis go untreated. As a result, more than 100,000 children die due to congenital syphilis and 100,000 more are born with the infection, Carrascal said.

The chances of a mother passing the disease to her child are high. If a pregnant woman has HIV and is untreated, there is a 20 percent chance her baby will have it. With venereal syphilis, however, there is a 95 percent chance the mother will pass the disease to the developing fetus.

Costa Rica has been a model in fighting infectious diseases. Other countries have had successful strategies as well. In rural Haiti, for example, health care workers are going out into the community rather than waiting for patients to walk miles to come to them. "Now they can diagnose the disease and treat it on site," said Salazar.

By simply providing early detection for pregnant women in Cali, Colombia, the incidence of congenital syphilis has been cut in half, according to Salazar. Dr. Alejandro Varela, director of the City of Cali Department of Health, will address this subject at the UAlbany conference.

Many UAlbany students will be attending. "Just the fact that we are bringing all these extraordinary experts to Albany to discuss this important topic provides an outstanding experience for our students," Whittaker said.

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