Thousands of babies' lives could be saved if pregnant women were screened for syphilis, researchers from University College London have claimed.

Syphilis is responsible for approximately 500,000 stillborn and newborn deaths each year - mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, looked at 41,000 women, and found that routine screening and antibiotics could halve the number of deaths.

Globally, more than 2 million women a year are pregnant with syphilis, leading to complications in two-thirds of cases (including stillbirth, death of newborns and low birth rate). It can also be passed onto the baby in the womb, which is known as congenital syphilis.

Many countries have screening policies for syphilis, but in poor countries or rural areas, they don't often take place, the researchers claimed.

Dr Sarah Hawkes, who led the research, said screenings had "failed because of a lack of will to screen".

Instead, she suggested screenings should take place at the same time as screening for HIV.

She said: "The resources needed to roll out programmes for antenatal screening will be a worthwhile investment for reduction of adverse pregnancy outcomes and improvement of neonatal and child survival."

Posted by Robert Mair on 20.6.11 Comment on this article by sending it to: penny.hosie@pavpub.com