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Syphilis cases increasing among women

There has been a large increase in the number of cases of syphilis reported in New Zealand but many cases are going unreported, because it is often mistaken for other conditions.

In 2017 there were 400 cases reported by sexual health clinics, up 500% on the 80 reported in 2012.

MidCentral DHB Sexual Health Physician Dr Anne Robertson said: “Although most syphilis infections have been among men who have sex with other men, there are increasing numbers of women being infected. There are serious health risks to newborn babies if infection is acquired during or before pregnancy. Untreated it can cause stillbirths and congenital abnormalities.”

“The signs and symptoms of syphilis are under diagnosed. The initial ulcer is often painless and heals itself. The subsequent rash can be mild and can be easily mistaken for other conditions. It can present with visual symptoms which can mimic other eye conditions. It can also be asymptomatic,” said Dr Robertson.

Syphilis can cause chronic bone disease, chronic brain disease and even dementia. It can be fatal if left untreated.

Syphilis is spread through unprotected sex, including oral sex. It is diagnosed on a blood test.

The best way to prevent syphilis is to practise safer sex by using condoms.

Testing is free through MidCentral DHB’s Sexual Health Service, the Youth One Stop Shop or a GP. Pregnant women can contact their midwife.

The sexual health service has walk-in clinics on Monday and Friday mornings 0900-1200 (phone 0800 808 602 or 06 3508602 or see

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