13 Apr 2018

Syphilis increase 'tip of the iceberg'

3:25 pm on 13 April 2018




Photo: 123rf

Cases of syphilis in New Zealand have almost doubled since 2015, with 470 infections reported last year - and a sexual health expert warns the numbers are likely the tip of the iceberg. 

Data released today by the Ministry of Health shows the highest number of cases of the sexually transmitted infection last year were reported in males aged 20 to 39 years, particularly those in the 25 to 29 age group, in the Auckland and Wellington regions.

Nearly 70 percent of the cases were reported in men who have sex with men and in nearly 21 percent of these cases, the person was also HIV positive. 

There has also been an increase in syphilis in heterosexual males and females. For females, the highest number of cases reported last year was among 20 to 39-years-olds. 

New Zealand has seen an upwards trend in cases of the disease since 2012, a trend that has been found internationally. 

Dr Jane Morgan of the Hamilton Sexual Health Team said that the number of cases of syphilis detected in New Zealand was likely the "tip of the iceberg," given that data mainly came from a small number of sexual health clinics in New Zealand, and not from other medical practitioners like GPs. 

This meant if a person was diagnosed with syphilis by their GP, the infection would not be counted in the figures presented to the Ministry of Health by the institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). 

Dr Morgan urged medical professionals to no longer consider syphilis as being rare, as this attitude had led to it not being recognised and reported, allowing it to continue spreading. 

The Ministry of Health is urging people to practice safe sex, including the use of condoms. 

People who have unprotected sex, or more than one sexual partner, should get tested for STIs, even if they don’t have any symptoms. 

Testing for syphilis requires a blood test which can be done at any sexual health clinic or through your GP.


Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be treated and cured with antibiotics. 

It can affect the brain, spinal cord and other organs and untreated syphilis increases the risk of contracting HIV. 

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. 

- Ministry of Health