Here we go again: Mississippi leads U.S. in newborns with syphilis

Some Mississippi leaders would have citizens believe that the state’s condition has never been better. After all, the state’s coffers are so flush (largely with federal cash) that many of the same leaders are itching to eliminate the mildly progressive income tax. Why tax when you have more money than you need to keep essential services intact?

Recent data give the lie to that particular piece of nonsense, indicating that Mississippi leads the nation in syphilis cases, including a 900% increase in babies – the vast majority of them babies of color – born with syphilis over a six-year period ending in 2021. Once again Mississippi tops the list of “bad” health indicators – cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, infant mortality; just add infants with syphilis to the depressingly long and lengthening list.

But wait. Perhaps our leaders simply don’t see public health as an essential service to citizens. Historical evidence suggests precisely that. Side-by-side with staunch opposition to expanding Medicaid coverage is a long record of neglect of, if not assault on – including reduced budgets, staffing cuts, and forced reorganization – the state Department of Health (MSDH).

Don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who has served both as state epidemiologist and state health director (and whose name is unfortunately affixed to the case the Supreme Court used to kill women’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy). “We don’t have a comprehensive support network where women are accessing prenatal care,” Dobbs told Mississippi Today. “Women of a reproductive age need to have regular health care to have proper family resources,” Dobbs said. “Women should be empowered to time births consistent with their desires, with the counseling of physicians.”  Dobbs characterized the syphilis outbreak as a reflection of the depletion of Department of Health resources. “If your health department doesn’t have anybody in them, you can’t get tested or treated. Those are the bread-and-butter pieces of syphilis control. Over the past two decades, public health has deteriorated remarkably.”

Deteriorating public health decidedly does not factor into a formula for state well-being, no matter how fat the “rainy-day” fund is.

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