An increase in the number of syphilis cases across New Zealand, and including the Bay of Plenty, has prompted a sexual health expert to call for people to know what they can do to stay safe and when to be tested.
“We are in the midst of a syphilis epidemic and the number of cases has increased dramatically in the last five years,” says Dr Massimo Giola, Sexual Health Physician for Bay of Plenty District Health Board. “Five years ago we were seeing only a few cases in a whole year at the sexual health clinic, now we’re seeing two to three new cases every week here in the Bay of Plenty.”
In 2012 there were 80 confirmed cases of syphilis in New Zealand. For 2017, that number had grown to 477.
Dr Giola urges people to consider how they can look after their health and get tested if they have any concerns.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and so you can prevent infection with safer sex practices.
“If you have a new sexual partner use condoms for sex, until you and your sexual partner, or partners, have had a check for STIs,” says Dr Giola.
Tests for syphilis and other STIs are free, so if you are in a new relationship and need to have an STI check, or if you are concerned that you may be at risk, call your family doctor or visit a sexual health clinic for confidential advice and testing.
The early symptoms of syphilis include a sore or ulcer at the site of infection, usually the genitals, anus or mouth. Not everyone has symptoms and the sore may be painless and hidden from view so may not be noticed. The early symptoms such as a sore will disappear on their own but without the right antibiotic treatment the infection can stay in the body for years and later cause serious illness affecting the heart, brain, nerves and joints.
“Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early but many people do not get any symptoms. This is why a blood test, which is the only way a syphilis infection can be diagnosed, is so important as part of an STI check,” says Dr Giola.
“The most worrying type of syphilis infection we are seeing, particularly here in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes region, is congenital syphilis where a pregnant woman passes the infection on to her unborn baby. We had four cases of congenital syphilis in 2017 in New Zealand and four cases again in 2018,” says Dr Giola.
If a woman is infected with syphilis before or during pregnancy, and is not diagnosed and treated, there is a very high risk of passing that infection on to the baby. This may have devastating effects for the baby including stillbirth or permanent damage to the eyes, hearing, brain, bones, or other organs. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to see your midwife or doctor early in pregnancy as a test for syphilis is one of the routine blood tests done in pregnancy. Early diagnosis in pregnancy allows effective antibiotic treatment to be given and so it can prevent the baby being infected or harmed.
Syphilis is preventable – with safer sexual practices such as using condoms, knowing your risk, and getting tested if you may be at risk, you can be confident in keeping yourself safe.
For more information including advice on getting tested see: