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Arlene Seña, MD, MPH

Dr. Arlene Sena and her team are working to develop a syphilis vaccine, “But we need to know what’s circulating worldwide first.”

Arlene Seña, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, is co-project director of a cooperative research grant for a Treponema pallidum vaccine development initiative and a global clinical research consortium.

Seña has over 20 years of STI research experiences, and she specifically studies syphilis, one of the oldest known STIs. She emphasized that it is vital for clinicians to understand how syphilis presents, and outlined the several stages of the infection.

After a primary infection, appearing as painless genital ulcers, syphilis can spread to a rash, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss, or even hepatitis. At these stages, a person may not know they have syphilis, which is why it’s so important to know the signs and get tested. After these initial stages, there is a period of latency with no symptoms. Eventually, the infection will present as neurosyphilis, affecting the cerebrospinal nervous system (CNS). At its most severe, syphilis at these stages can affect the cardiovascular system.

Seña noted that syphilis can be transmitted to infants, calling congenital syphilis “a major concern.” She said that from 2016 to 2020, congenital syphilis cases increased 254%.