Why is everyone talking about syphilis?

It seems like everyone is talking about syphilis and that can’t be a good thing – or can it? Emily Writes gives you the lowdown

What’s all this then?

Mate, we’re in the midst of an outbreak and it’s not good. Syphilis, once almost eradicated in New Zealand, is at epidemic levels.

There have been deaths so now it’s making the news.

What even is it?

Family Planning New Zealand says syphilis is an infection that can start as an ulcer somewhere on the skin or on the lining of the genital area. In its late stages, it can cause damage to the heart, brain and spinal cord.

So it’s a big deal, and not just for your pink bits.

How dangerous is it?

It’s very dangerous. If you’re pregnant and you have syphilis but it’s not detected during antenatal care, you can pass it on to your unborn children, causing stillbirth or serious complications including blindness.

So how do you get it?

You can get syphilis through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has it. This is why you need to use condoms if you’re having sex with someone whose sexual history you don’t know about. It’s also spread by close contact and it can be spread from mother to pēpe through the placenta during pregnancy.

What does it look like?

You will get a painless ulcer called a chancre, usually on your penis, balls, vagina or butthole. Because it’s painless, you might not notice it – or you might think it’s nothing to worry about. But it is! Check your genitals regularly. In its second stage, there might be a rash and maybe other symptoms. This is what it looks like on your junk. It can also look like this.

Syphilis has stages?

It sure does, and none of those four stages are particularly great.

At the Primary stage, you’ll start with a single chancre but there may be multiple sores. Then in the secondary stage, you’ll get a rash, usually on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. Other symptoms may include fever, sore throat, weight loss, hair loss, and headache.

In latent syphilis, which can last for years, there are few or no symptoms. In tertiary syphilis, there are gummas (soft non-cancerous growths), neurological, or heart symptoms.

Thankfully, Syphilis can be treated at every stage.

How do you treat it?

Well, it’s easy to treat. Basically, you just need antibiotics. But to stop the spread, you need to tell anyone you’re banging as well as they will need to be tested.  You won’t be able to jump back on the horse, so to speak, until you’re both treated.

Who needs to be worried about it?

Everyone really, because we don’t want babies dying needlessly and we don’t want people passing on this infection. If you’re pregnant, ask for a test. If you’re sexually active and you’ve had sex without a condom with someone whose sexual history you’re unsure about, get tested. It’s just a blood test – super simple, and if you’ve got it they’ll give you antibiotics.

What can you do to prevent it?

Well, on an individual level – use a condom and practice safer sex. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s probably time to consider why we’re having a syphilis outbreak. We need to look at what impact funding cuts have had on sexual health services nationwide.

Lead maternity carers are so short-staffed some women are going without maternal care and turning up to hospital having had no midwife support for their whole pregnancy. In Auckland, where there’s heaps of syphilis, there are just 2.1 full time equivalent sexual health physicians for the entire region.

Dr Jane Morgan, clinical director of Waikato DHB’s Hamilton Sexual Health, told the NZ Herald that confirmation of congenital syphilis in New Zealand was “completely appalling”.

“The World Health Organisation has given Cuba an award for eliminating congenital syphilis. We are reintroducing it. [It] basically says, ‘our healthcare systems are falling over.’ I’m reeling a bit. It’s just heartbreaking that we are seeing it. It is hard to comprehend.”

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