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Syphilis. It's back. Get Tested. Get Treated

Cases of syphilis, a sexually transmissible infection (STI) that can cause serious health problems if left untreated and poses a serious risk to unborn babies, are expected to rise in Hawke’s Bay with national figures more than doubling since 2015.

Hawke’s Bay District Health Board (HBDHB) medical officer of health, Dr Rachel Eyre, said more-and-more cases were being reported nationally, so it was important people understood exactly what syphilis was and how to avoid infection.

“While local cases remain low compared to other regions, it is important sexually active people are aware of the infection and the serious health issues it can cause if not treated,” said Dr Eyre.

“Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is treated with antibiotics and prevented through practising safer sex. If left untreated it can cause damage to vital organs or harm unborn babies with potentially fatal complications for a foetus exposed to syphilis.

“National figures tell us that men who have sex with men (MSM) have the highest number of cases reported. However, heterosexual male and female cases have also risen in the 20-39 years age group.”

Dr Eyre said HBDHB was preparing health messaging in lead-up to the holiday period to create greater community awareness about the STI.

“Syphilis. It’s back. Get tested. Get treated is a local social media campaign we are preparing to help raise awareness among sexually active people about syphilis infection,” said Dr Eyre.

“We will also be asking those in the hospitality industry to help share our important health messages by putting our posters and stickers up in their rest rooms and on the back of toilet cubicle doors and we will also be reminding our wider health networks about the importance of screening for syphilis in pregnancy.”

Dr Eyre said transmission of syphilis can be reduced by using condoms, and she encouraged anyone who has had unprotected sex or more than one sexual partner to get tested even if they didn’t have any symptoms.

“We’re asking people be aware of the rise in syphilis, and take charge of their health. If you think that you have syphilis or are at risk of syphilis, see your doctor or local sexual health clinic,” said Dr Eyre.
Anyone wanting to learn more could also visit the Ministry of Health’s Syphilis page


Syphilis is a serious bacterial infection that can cause significant complications if left untreated. Syphilis is usually spread through sexual contact but can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy or birth, resulting in serious complications and sometimes death.

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics. If not treated, over time, syphilis can affect the brain, spinal cord and other organs. Having untreated syphilis also increases your risk of catching HIV infection.

The symptoms of syphilis depend on the stage of infection; primary, secondary, and late (tertiary).

The first symptoms of syphilis usually include genital (or possibly oral or anal) ulcers that are often painless, with swollen local nodes. The ulcers usually last a few weeks, often followed by rashes, and sometimes with fever, tiredness, headache, persistent swollen lymph nodes, hair loss or warty growths especially in the genital or anal areas.

Symptoms disappear after a few weeks without treatment, however the disease continues to slowly develop if left undiagnosed and untreated. Complications appear after months or years and can affect multiple parts of the body, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints.

As the symptoms and the severity of syphilis may vary and as the symptoms will disappear even though the disease continues to develop, it is recommended that people at risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (i.e. those with multiple sexual partners and/or practising unprotected sex) are tested regularly for syphilis and other STIs, even if they use condoms.

Preventing syphilis transmission to others also requires timely diagnosis and treatment, contact tracing and follow-up of treated individuals to reduce spread.

Hawke’s Bay reported cases of syphilis.

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