Introduction Despite a large and growing burden of mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of syphilis in China over the past 20 years, the issue received far less attention and fewer resources than prevention of MTCT (PMTCT) of HIV, which has a substantially lower burden. China’s Ministry of Health issued the first national plan for syphilis control in 2010, aiming to integrate PMTCT of syphilis and HIV. Our study aimed to identify: 1) why PMTCT of syphilis had a lower political/resource priority than PMTCT of HIV before 2010; and 2) what actions would improve the prospects of successful implementation of dual PMTCT.
Methods A comparative policy analysis was undertaken, based on informant interviews, documentation review, and nonparticipant observation of relevant meetings/trainings, to investigate priority-setting prior to 2010. Policy data were analysed by using a nine-factor framework which assesses political prioritization across three categories: transnational influence; domestic advocacy; and national political environment.
Results Several factors contributing to the lower priority accorded to PMTCT of syphilis were identified: 1) relative neglect at a global level; 2) dearth of international financial and technical support; 3) poorly unified national policy community with weak accountability mechanisms; 4) insufficient understanding of the epidemic and policy options; and 5) a prevailing negative framing of syphilis that resulted in significant stigmatization.
Conclusion The goal of dual PMTCT of syphilis and HIV will only be achieved when equal priority is accorded to both infections. This will require stronger cohesion and leadership from the syphilis policy community. The community will also need to reframe the issue so as to overcome stigmatization against those affected by the illness, organize focusing events to attract political attention, and work more closely with the HIV policy community in order to enhance the recognition of the need to control syphilis on both the national and sub-national agendas.