Confidante: Syphilis

3rd June 2019

STI Insight: Syphilis

WHAT IS SYPHILIS?

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Although spread through sexual contact, it is frequently passed to an unborn child by its infected mother, where it can cause congenital syphilis resulting in high rates of still birth and increased infant mortality rates.

Primary syphilis is when sores appear at the point where the bacteria entered the body. These sores can appear anywhere such as: around the opening of the urethra, penis, foreskin and anus in men; the vulva, clitoris, cervix, urethra and anus in women.

Secondary syphilis occurs when untreated sores have appeared and healed. It is still infectious and maintains its ability to be passed on.Tertiary syphilis is a progression from untreated secondary syphilis. Untreated syphilis can, after many years, cause serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes, internal organs and nervous system, which can ultimately lead to death.

IMPORTANT STATISTICS:

Below are some statistics that have been published:

  • In 2017, there were approximately 422,000 diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) made in England, around the same number that was reported in 2016.
  • There were 7,137 diagnoses of syphilis reported in 2017, a 20% increase (from 5,955) relative to the year prior and a 148% increase relative to 2008.
  • The impact of STIs remains greatest in young heterosexuals 15 to 24 years; black ethnic minorities; and gay, bisexual and other MSM
  • The increase in syphilis follows a 10-year trend, with 78% of diagnoses in gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM).

 

HOW IS SYPHILIS PASSED ON?

Syphilis is passed on from one person to another through sex (vaginal, anal and oral) and also by direct skin contact with syphilis sores or rashes. Symptoms do not have to be visible for it to be passed on. It can still be transmitted before sores appear or after they have disappeared. Pregnant women can also pass syphilis onto their unborn baby.

WHAT ARE THE COMPLICATIONS OF SYPHILIS?

If syphilis is not treated effectively, it can spread to other parts of the body. This can result in long term complications, such as damage to the heart, brain, eyes and other organs. Ultimately, this damage can even lead to death.

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