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ATLANTA (AP) — American women passed syphilis to their babies last year at less than half the rate they did just four years ago, bringing health officials closer to stamping out the disease, the government said Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 529 cases of congenital syphilis last year, down from 1,077 in 1997. That puts the current rate at about one infected baby for every 7,500 live births.

“Three years is literally a heartbeat in public health time,” said Dr. Judith Wasserheit, the CDC’s prevention chief for sexually transmitted diseases. “We should all be celebrating the news.”

The government said it was more evidence that syphilis, a disease that has fallen to record lows in the United States, can be nearly wiped out in this decade.

Experts credited a national anti-syphilis effort launched in 1999 that centers on community-based prevention programs, faster response to syphilis outbreaks and better access to clinics.

Syphilis rates for women of childbearing age dropped almost as sharply — 38 percent. The syphilis rate in 2000 was about one case for every 27,000 women ages 15 to 44.

CDC wants to bring total cases under 1,000 and make 90 percent of American counties syphilis-free — its definition of elimination — by 2005.

Health

officials are confident the goal is reachable. All but two states — Arkansas and South Carolina — met health officials’ expectations for congenital syphilis rates in 2000.

Syphilis first appears as a painless sore, then causes rashes and lesions. It can be cured with antibiotics, but if left untreated can lead to degeneration of bones, the heart and the nervous system.

It is extremely concentrated both geographically and racially, with rates highest in the South and among blacks.

Syphilis rates in the United States peaked in 1990. The disease tends to move in seven- to 10-year cycles. The last cases of syphilis may prove the hardest to wipe out. High rates of syphilis have been linked to crack use, and addicts can be particularly elusive.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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