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Epidemiologia e Serviços de Saúde

versão impressa ISSN 1679-4974versão On-line ISSN 2237-9622

Epidemiol. Serv. Saúde vol.29 no.2 Brasília  2020  Epub 13-Abr-2020 


Congenital syphilis distribution in the State of Tocantins, Brazil, 2007-2015*

Maria José Neres da Silva (orcid: 0000-0003-1120-487X)1  , Florisneide Rodrigues Barreto (orcid: 0000-0002-9404-2740)2  , Maria da Conceição Nascimento Costa (orcid: 0000-0001-7275-4280)2  , Martha Suely Itaparica de Carvalho (orcid: 0000-0003-2546-6846)2  , Maria da Glória Teixeira (orcid: 0000-0003-3318-3408)2 

1Secretaria de Saúde do Estado do Tocantins, Núcleo de Vigilância Epidemiológica Hospitalar, Guaraí, TO, Brazil

2Universidade Federal da Bahia, Instituto de Saúde Coletiva, Salvador, BA, Brazil



to describe the epidemiological profile of congenital syphilis (CS) in Tocantins, from 2007 to 2015.


this was a cross-sectional descriptive study conducted with data from the Notifiable Health Conditions Information System (SINAN) and the Live Birth Information System (SINASC).


1,029 CS cases were reported; mean CS incidence was 4.6/1,000 Live Births (LB), increasing from 3.1/1,000 LB in 2007 to 9.8/1,000 LB in 2015 (increase of 216.1%); municipalities located in the central and northern regions of the state had the highest rates; the majority of mothers of newborn babies were 15-24 years old, had elementary school education, started prenatal care in the third trimester of pregnancy, and received inadequate prenatal care.


high occurrence of congenital syphilis in Tocantins requires immediate intensification of CS surveillance and improved prenatal care quality, especially in municipalities with higher incidence.

Keywords: Syphilis, Congenital; Prenatal Care; Epidemiology, Descriptive


Congenital syphilis (CS) is a Public Health problem, even though it can be prevented: control of mother-to-child syphilis transmission is feasible and includes diagnostic tests and effective low-cost treatment.1 Infection of pregnant women by Treponema pallidum, the etiological agent of syphilis, results in unfavorable outcomes and serious perinatal sequelae such as deafness, blindness, mental disability, premature childbirth and miscarriage, among others.

Since 2010, occurrence of CS has been growing in Latin America and the Caribbean. Estimates indicate that 22,400 babies were born with syphilis in the region in 2015.2 In Brazil, in 2016, the acquired syphilis detection rate was 42.5/100,000 inhabitants, the incidence rate among pregnant women was 12.4/1,000 live births (LB) and congenital syphilis incidence was 6.8/1,000 LB.3

The Brazilian Pact for Health includes actions aimed at overcoming difficulties in controlling syphilis, such as lack of treating partners4 and the predominance of pregnant women with incomplete prenatal health care.5 Between 2010 and 2016, 1,021 CS cases were notified in the state of Tocantins, accounting for 1.04% of total cases detected in Brazil in the same period. In 2016, the incident rate of the disease was 9.9/1,000 LB, this being higher than the country’s mean rate of 6.8/1,000 LB.6 It is important to monitor this indicator and to raise the awareness of health service managers as to the need for interventions intended to enhance congenital syphilis prevention and control, especially with regard to the quality of prenatal care.

The objective of this study was to describe the epidemiological profile of congenital syphilis in the state of Tocantins, Brazil, between 2007 and 2015.


This is a descriptive study relating to the period 2007-2015. Tocantins is located in the southeast of Brazil’s Northern region and covers an area of approximately 277,621km². In 2010, the state had 1,383,445 inhab., and demographic density of 4.98 inhab./km2.7

The study population was comprised of live births in the period 2007-2015. The Notifiable Health Conditions Information System (SINAN) and the Live Birth Information System (SINASC) were the study’s data sources.

The following variables were analyzed:

a) Variables relating to pregnant women

  • zone of residence (rural; urban);

  • schooling (illiterate; elementary education; high school education; higher education);

  • race/skin color (brown; non-brown);

  • age group (in years; <15; 15-24; 25-34; ≥35);

  • prenatal care received (yes; no);

  • period in which prenatal care was begun (1st trimester; 2nd trimester; 3rd trimester);

  • period in which maternal syphilis diagnosed (prenatal; childbirth/curettage; postpartum); and

  • adequacy of treatment of pregnant women (adequate; inadequate);

b) Variables relating to partners

  • treatment provided (yes; no);

c) Variables relating to the newborn

  • clinical diagnosis (asymptomatic; symptomatic; no information available);

  • laboratory diagnosis of peripheral blood and cerebrospinal fluid;

  • cerebrospinal fluid change (venereal disease research laboratory [VDRL]); and

  • treatment regimen (crystalline penicillin; procaine penicillin; benzathine penicillin; other; no information available).

Adequacy of care provision was based on the criteria established by the Ministry of Health.6 The proportions in each stratum of the variables of interest were calculated excluding cases with missing information.

Annual CS incidence coefficients per 1,000 LB between 2007 and 2015 were calculated. Cumulative mean incidence coefficients per municipality for the period were used in the analysis of spatial distribution. This indicator was represented on a map of the state of Tocantins, prepared with the aid of TabWin 4.14.

The study project was approved by the Tocantins State Health Department, as per Ordinance No. 796/2014, and was approved by the Federal University of Bahia Public Health Institute Research Ethics Committee (CEP/ISC/UFBA): Opinion No. 1.990.883, dated March 28th 2017.


Between 2007 and 2015, 1,029 CS cases were notified in the state of Tocantins, corresponding to a mean annual incidence rate of 4.6/1,000 LB. During the period, this indicator increased from 3.1/1,000 (2007) to 9.8/1,000 LB (2015), representing an increase of 216.1%. This increase was not linear, given that between 2007 and 2009, CS incidence reduced from 3.1 to 2.6%, while between 2011 and 2015 it increased by 157.9%, from 3.8 to 9.8%.

The mothers of the majority of newborns with CS were aged 15-24 (57.6%) and 25-34 years old (34.2%), had elementary education (75.2%), lived in the urban zone (91.4%) and were of brown race/skin/color (86.3%). Among the 891 (89.1%) mothers who had prenatal care, 21.2% started care in the 1st trimester of pregnancy, 33.0% in the 2nd and 45.8% in the 3rd trimester. It was found that 50.8% of maternal syphilis cases were diagnosed during prenatal care and 41.7% at the time of childbirth/curettage; and that for 83.9% of the 670 pregnant women submitted to treatment, treatment was considered to be inadequate. Mothers whose partners were treated or not treated for syphilis, corresponded to 17.0% and 83.0% of the 943 reported cases, respectively (Table 1). Information was unknown/not recorded in relation to 34.9% of the ‘adequacy of maternal treatment for syphilis’ variable; with regard to the other variables, this percentage varied between 0.4% for race/skin color and 10.2% for schooling.

Table 1 - Distribution of live births reported as having congenital syphilis (N=1,029) according to maternal clinical and sociodemographic characteristics, 2007-2015 

Variables N %
Age group (in years)
<15 18 1.8
15-24 586 57.6
25-34 348 34.2
≥35 65 6.4
Illiterate 11 1.2
Elementary education 696 75.2
High school education 203 21.9
Higher education 15 1.6
Zone of residence
Urban 926 91.4
Rural 87 8.6
Race/skin colorb
Brown 885 86.3
Non-brown 140 13.7
Prenatal care
Yes 891 89.1
No 109 10.9
Start of prenatal care
1st trimester 189 21.2
2st trimester 294 33.0
3st trimester 408 45.8
Diagnosis of syphilis
Prenatal 507 50.8
Childbirth/curettage 417 41.7
Postpartum 75 7.5
Adequacy of maternal syphilis treatment
Adequate 108 16.1
Inadequate 562 83.9
Partner treated for syphilis
Yes 160 17.0
No 783 83.0

a) 925 valid observations.

b) 1,025 valid observations.

With regard to reported cases of newborns with CS, 86.7% were tested using peripheral blood VDRL and 39.4% using cerebrospinal fluid VDRL, whereby 86.2% and 5.9% were reactive, respectively. Among those indicating cerebrospinal fluid change, 43.5% were examined and change was found in 2.1% of the cases. In relation to clinical diagnosis, 86.9% were asymptomatic; and for the 859 for whom information about treatment was available, the most used drug (73.8%) was crystalline penicillin (Table 2).

Table 2 - Distribution of live births reported as having congenital syphilis (N=1,029) according to laboratory tests, type of diagnosis and treatment regimen, Tocantins, 2007-2015 

Variables N %
VDRLa peripheral blood
Information available 990 96.2b
Test performed 861 86.7c
Reactive 742 86.2
Non-reactive 119 13.8
Test not performed 129 13.0c
No information available 39 3.8b
VDRLa cerebrospinal fluid
Information available 938 91.2b
Test performed 370 39.4c
Reactive 22 5.9
Non-reactive 348 94.1
Test not performed 568 60.6c
No information available 91 8.8b
Cerebrospinal fluid changes
Information available 963 93.6b
Examined 419 43.5c
Changes present 9 2.1
No changes 410 97.9
Not examined 544 56.5c
No information available 66 6.4b
Clinical diagnosis
Information available 746 72.5b
Asymptomatic 648 86.9
Symptomatic 98 13.1
No information available 283 27.5b
Treatment regimen
Information available 859 83.5b
Crystalline penicillin 634 73.8
Procaine penicillin 57 6.6
Benzathine penicillin 71 8.3
Other 97 11.3
No information available 170 16.5b

a) VDRL: venereal disease research laboratory.

b) Percentage in relation to total live births.

c) Percentage in relation to total cases with available information.

Of the 139 municipalities existing in Tocantins, two - one in the central region and the other in the northern region of the state - had mean incidence ranging from 5.0 to 11.0/1,000 LB. A further two municipalities, also located in the central region, had incidence ranging from 1.0 to 5.0/1,000 LB. In the majority of the municipalities (74.8%), the incidence rate was up to 1.0/1,000 LB; in the remaining municipalities (22.3%), there were no records of the disease (Figure 1).

a) 925 valid observations.

b) 1,025 valid observations.

Figure 1 - Congenital syphilis incidence distribution (per 1,000 live births) per municipality, Tocantins 2007-2015 


Evidence was found of intense increase in CS incidence in the state of Tocantins between 2007 and 2015. The majority of mothers were of childbearing age, had low levels of schooling, were of brown race/skin color, began their prenatal appointments in the 3rd term of pregnancy and approximately half of them received diagnosis of syphilis during those appointments. Treatment was inadequate for over 80% of pregnant women and a similar proportion was found regarding treatment of their partners.

The growth in CS incidence in the state may result both from an increase in the real number of cases and also from improved structuring of the health service network. Considering the expansion of the Family Health Strategy and adherence to the Stork Network (Rede Cegonha), these Public Health initiatives may possibly have contributed to improved case notification. It is noteworthy that CS has been seen to have increased in Brazil as a whole,5 suggesting that progress achieved through the Family Health Strategy and the Stork Network is increasing sensitivity with regard to CS detection, although such progress has not shown itself to be sufficient to prevent infections during pregnancy or even early detection - and treatment - of pregnant women and their partners in the sense of avoiding new CS cases.

As in other studies,8,9 the majority of pregnant women had prenatal health care, and this must have contributed to improving detection of syphilis. Some authors have found low percentages of pregnant women starting prenatal care late;10,11 that result is different to the one found in Tocantins, where these percentages were high. This finding is of concern for the state, since delay in starting prenatal care is associated with greater risk of occurrence of CS.12-14

Considering that starting prenatal follow-up in the first trimester of pregnancy is an indicator of the quality of maternal health care,9,5 the hypothesis can be raised that in Tocantins such care is still insufficient. In this study, the majority of mothers diagnosed with syphilis were not submitted to treatment or treatment was inadequate. The same situation was found in Belo Horizonte.15 This is made worse by the fact that 83.0% of the partners of these pregnant women were not treated for syphilis.

Standing out in Tocantins is the low proportion of live births with CS who underwent the cerebrospinal fluid examination including VDRL, this test being fundamental for decision making on the intravenous use of crystalline penicillin instead of procaine penicillin. The latter is not an option in the event of the possibility of the newborn baby having neurosyphilis.16,17

One of the explanations for the CS spatial distribution pattern found in this study, according to which CS incidence was concentrated in just 8.6% of the state’s municipalities, may be the fact that they are the most populous municipalities and are more likely to have a health service network that is better structured and trained for performing diagnosis. Consideration must also be given to a possible weakness in the information systems of the remaining municipalities and the complexity involved in diagnosing CS in the newborn, given that the majority of babies infected with Treponema pallidum may be asymptomatic at birth, with VDRL titers lower than maternal titers, in addition to the difficulty in performing the cerebrospinal fluid examination.

As this study was conducted using secondary data and was concerned with a disease that is hard to diagnose in the newborn, its results need to be interpreted with caution in view of case underreporting. Nevertheless, this limitation points to the possibility of the epidemiological situation in Tocantins being even more serious than that shown in the profile described here. Moreover, data aggregated over a long period may not necessarily reflect the current distribution pattern of the disease.

Initial conduct for congenital syphilis detection and treatment is not completely in agreement with Ministry of Health guidelines:3 the majority of cases have been diagnosed late and this may cause adverse consequences for affected children. From this perspective, it is important to highlight the importance of intensifying syphilis surveillance, prevention and control actions, including improved prenatal care.


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*Article derived from the Master’s Degree thesis entitled ‘Epidemiological Profile of Congenital Syphilis in the State of Tocantins, 2007-2015’, defended by Maria José Neres da Silva at the Federal University of Bahia Public Health Institute Professional Master’s Program in 2017.

Received: March 19, 2019; Accepted: January 28, 2020

Correspondence: Florisneide Rodrigues Barreto - Av. Orlando Gomes, Condomínio Parque Costa Verde, Rua L, Casa 16C, Piatã, Salvador, BA, Brazil. Postcode: 41650-010. E-mail:

Authors’ contributions

Silva MJN and Barreto FR contributed to the study conception and design, database organization, results analysis and interpretation, and writing the manuscript. Costa MCN contributed to data analysis and interpretation and writing the manuscript. Carvalho MSI contributed to organizing and analyzing the database and writing the manuscript. Teixeira MG contributed to the analysis and interpretation of the results and writing the manuscript. All the authors have approved the final version and declare themselves to be responsible for all aspects of the work, guaranteeing is accuracy and integrity.

Associate Editor: Maryane Oliveira Campos -

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