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Syphilis is infecting New Zealand women who then unknowingly pass the disease to their unborn baby in pregnancy.

That can have devastating consequences if untreated - the bacterial infection has caused six recent stillbirths, mostly among young Māori women.

Nicholas Jones investigates the highly preventable tragedies and finds gaps in the health system are putting families at risk.

The call came when Sarah was out of town. A nurse had results from a blood test taken at her first antenatal appointment.

"It's positive for syphilis," he told her. There wasn't much more information; he didn't know enough, and said the GP would call soon.

A panicked Google search brought up what could happen when the disease infects unborn child: stillbirth, miscarriage, deafness, deformity and brain damage.

The 29-year-old's world, so recently and thrillingly widened, collapsed. Her hands shook as she rang home.


"You hear the word 'syphilis' and you go into a tailspin," her mother, Jenny, recalls of

Health systems 'caught off-guard'


'You're looking for signs of abnormality'

'A blatant failure'

Test twice to save life

History repeats


'We were lucky'