Tribal Leaders Urge HHS Secretary to Declare Syphilis Emergency

Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Founded in 1986, the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board (GPTLHB) serves as the official representative body for seventeen tribal nations and one service unit in the Great Plains area on issues impacting health.
Founded in 1986, the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board (GPTLHB) serves as the official representative body for seventeen tribal nations and one service unit in the Great Plains area on issues impacting health.

RAPID CITY, S.D. — In response to an alarming surge in syphilis cases sweeping across the Great Plains Region, tribal officials representing nations spanning North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa are urgently appealing to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Bacerra for a formal declaration of a public health emergency.

Jerilyn Church, CEO of the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board based in Rapid City, SD, conveyed this pressing message to Secretary Bacerra in a letter dispatched today.

"The elected leaders from each of the Great Plains Area tribal nations implore you to issue a Public Health Emergency Declaration under Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, acknowledging the significant outbreak of syphilis and congenital syphilis affecting American Indian and Alaska Native communities in our region," Church wrote.

Established in 1986, the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board (GPTLHB) serves as the official representative body for seventeen tribal nations and one service unit in the Great Plains area on issues impacting health.

"The syphilis rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Great Plains now surpasses any recorded rate in the United States since 1941, predating the availability of penicillin for infection treatment," Church emphasized.

Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services to implement measures aimed at preventing the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases, including the formulation and enforcement of regulations, along with resource mobilization for this purpose.

Data from the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center paints a grim picture: In 2020, syphilis rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Great Plains mirrored the national average. By 2022, however, these rates had skyrocketed by 1,865%, far outpacing the 154% increase seen nationally. Similarly, cases of congenital syphilis have spiked alarmingly, with certain areas witnessing rates where more than one in every forty American Indian and Alaska Native babies born in 2022 were diagnosed with the condition, constituting 2.5% of all Native births in those communities.

Yet, despite this unprecedented crisis, public health resources have not matched the scale of the challenge. Between 2020 and 2023, frontline health workers have grappled with nearly a nineteen-fold increase in syphilis cases without a corresponding boost in funding or workforce capacity.

Furthermore, while there exists a commitment to treat the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center and other tribal health authorities as public health agencies, access to essential data and significant resources from HHS remains elusive, hindering an effective response.

The Health Board is demanding immediate action, including emergency data access from the Indian Health Service and other pertinent department sources, the deployment of credentialed staff from tribal public health agencies to collaborate with the Indian Health Service in coordinating the syphilis response, the dispatch of at least 50 personnel from the Public Health Service to the Great Plains Area to bolster syphilis and congenital syphilis diagnosis and treatment efforts, provision of ample supplies for syphilis treatment, allocation of emergency funding, and the formulation of a comprehensive plan for supporting and monitoring children afflicted with congenital syphilis.

"Many of these hundreds of children will face significant long-term health challenges. It is imperative to commence planning for their care now to ensure they are not left behind," Church emphasized.

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