The STI Clinic News > Europe's Syphilis Infections Increasing
# Saturday, November 5, 2016
Posted: Saturday, November 5, 2016 | Categories: General Sexual Health

In the popular imagination, syphilis is a disease that belongs to another time: an age before modern medicine, plumbing and hygiene practices. But according to the latest reports, this "old-fashioned" STI is actually experiencing a comeback.

Earlier this year, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control released new data showing that syphilis diagnoses have been steadily increasing across Europe since 2010. As reported here, the ECDC found that gay and bisexual men contract syphilis most frequently; in fact, 63% of all diagnosed cases of syphilis occurred in men who have sex with men (MSM). Perhaps most surprising, though, is that the largest percentage increases in diagnoses year on year were seen in those aged 45 or over.

This increase in syphilis diagnoses can be seen not only across Europe as a whole, but in the UK as well. This year’s STI study from Public Health England reported a 20% increase in syphilis diagnoses from 2014 to 2015 – and an increase of a startling 76% from 2012.

Potential Causes for the Increase in Syphilis Diagnoses

One of the key causes for the increase in syphilis diagnoses may be that many people consider it to be a largely extinct disease. For this reason, they may not be familiar with the symptoms and how it is spread. This may be particularly the case for older people (i.e. the at-risk over-45 age category). Most sex education is targeted towards young people, meaning that older people may be missing out on key information.

As for men who have sex with men, it is thought that better screening programs have contributed to more diagnoses – which puts a positive spin upon these startling numbers. However, many doctors also believe that more and more men in the MSM group are having condomless sex. This may be attributed to the decline of the AIDS crisis, and the sophisticated developments in modern HIV treatment. Bacterial STIs such as syphilis are also on the rise in HIV-positive men who have sex with men (this is because HIV makes you more susceptible to other sexually transmitted infections).

Lastly, although syphilis usually causes symptoms, it can be entirely symptomless in some people. This means that you may be infected and not be aware of it.

Syphilis: Symptoms & Transmission

Syphilis can be contracted through sexual contact with someone who has been infected. In its early stages, the disease is known as "primary syphilis" and causes a small, painless sore or ulcer to develop, usually on the vagina, penis or anus. Because you usually only get one sore and it isn’t painful, it can be easy to ignore this symptom. Another sign that you might have contracted syphilis is swollen glands in the neck, armpits or groin.

Primary syphilis usually passes within a few weeks. However, when left untreated it can develop into secondary syphilis. The symptoms of this stage include:

  • A blotchy red rash
  • Skin growths on the vulva or anus
  • White patches inside the mouth
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Swollen glands
  • Hair loss

In the first two years after contracting syphilis, it is possible to pass on the infection to other people. This usually happens during sex when coming into contact with an infected sore – for this reason, it’s important to practise safe sex (by using condoms and dental dams) when having sex with someone who may be infected.

The problem is that, after its initial stages, syphilis can progress in the body without causing symptoms. If left to develop untreated, it can lead to tertiary syphilis, which is often associated with neurological diseases such as meningitis, dementia, stroke and blindness. At this point, the damage caused by the disease is difficult to reverse.

Testing For & Treating Syphilis

The good news to take away from the ECDC’s scary report is that, because syphilis is a bacterial infection, it can usually be treated with antibiotics.

It’s also very easy to get tested for syphilis. You can get tested for free at an NHS centre such as a GUM clinic. You can also obtain a home test kit from The STI Clinic. Click here to learn more.


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