Newborns in Great Plains Tribes Paying a Steep Price

ProPublica explains syphilis rates are off the charts, with infants at unprecedented risk
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 12, 2024 12:00 PM CDT
Newborns in Great Plains Tribes Paying a Steep Price
A rendering of treponema pallidum, the bacteria that cause syphilis.   (Getty / Love Employee)

Syphilis cases have been on the rise in the US, as has the number of infants born with the disease. But nowhere have those two stats wrought more misery than in South Dakota— more specifically among Native Americans on reservations there. ProPublica reports that "the syphilis rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Great Plains surpasses any recorded rate in the United States since 1941, when it was discovered that penicillin could treat the infection." Numbers have been surging in particular since 2020, and "surging" might be an understatement: The rate is up 1,865% among Indigenous people in the region, who make up less than 10% of the population but 80% of its syphilis cases. The focus of the story, however, is on the most vulnerable victims—newborns.

"By 2023, an astonishing 3% of all Native American babies born in South Dakota were infected," writes Anna Maria Barry-Jester. The story explores the factors at play, including a shortage of penicillin; a perennial lack of funds in the Indian Health Service from Congress; and policies that punish women found to have drugs in their system, which the CDC suggests might deter them from seeking prenatal treatment. Though syphilis is easily treatable, it can be life-threatening if unchecked, and Barry-Jester details the devastating toll on newborns: "Babies infected in the womb can be born in excruciating pain, with deformed bones, brain damage or other serious complications. They can even die." Tribal authorities have sought an emergency declaration from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, which could free up money, but they're still waiting. Read the full story. (Or read other longform recaps.)

Stories to sink your teeth into.
Get our roundup of longform stories every Saturday.
Sign up
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.