Syphilis on the rise in South

Dunedin doctor Jill McIlraith wants people to be more aware of the dangers of syphilis, which is...
Dunedin doctor Jill McIlraith wants people to be more aware of the dangers of syphilis, which is reappearing in Otago and Southland. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Syphilis rates are climbing in Otago and Southland as the country is swept by a resurgence of the disease - and a Dunedin specialist wants greater awareness of the condition.

Incidence of the syphilis has been on the increase across the country since 2012. It can be spread via bodily fluids during sex, blood and skin-to-skin contact, and congenitally, from mothers to their unborn children.

The New Zealand Herald reported earlier this month there had been at least four cases of congenital syphilis since 2017, including stillbirths.

Southern District Health Board GP and recently retired sexual health service clinical lead Dr Jill McIlraith, who works at Aurora Health Centre, said there were no cases of the disease in Otago or Southland in 2012.

But there were four cases in 2016 and 16 cases in 2017.

The largest increases of infectious syphilis have been in Auckland and Canterbury, but ``no areas are exempt''.

While there had been no reported SDHB cases where syphilis was passed down from mother to child, the DHB urged midwives and GPs involved at every stage of antenatal care to be aware of the ``upward trend'' and how devastating an undiagnosed infection could be in pregnancy.

The disease affected everyone from people in their teens to their 60s, across all social classes, and it was frustrating to see cases progress when syphilis was so easily treated, she said.

Syphilis could be treated with penicillin- or other antibiotics- at every stage, but treatment grew more complicated once it progressed to tertiary stage. Untreated late-stage syphilis can cause damage to the heart, brain, nerves, eye, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints.

Community awareness was the message Dr McIlraith wanted to emphasise, ``not more specialists'', she said.

Dr McIlraith said it was important people saw their GP, family planning, student health, or a sexual health clinic to get a blood test if they thought they were at risk.

``The demographic of who contracts this infection has changed from middle-aged men who have sex with men, to a much broader demographic including young heterosexual and bisexual women and men.''

The most typical sign of primary stage syphilis was a painless chancre or ulcer, which would heal before syphilis progressed to the secondary stage.

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