The syphilis epidemic 

20 August 2019

The number of cases of syphilis in New Zealand has doubled during the last three years, sparking the Ministry of Health (in consultation with the wider sexual health community) to develop a responsive action plan.

The plan takes a comprehensive approach to addressing the increase in syphilis, focussing on both prevention and treatment. The four key action areas are:

  1. Primary prevention and health promotion
  2. Testing and management
  3. Preventing congenital syphilis
  4. Surveillance

College Fellow, Dr Sue Tutty, was who was on the Ministry of Health’s initial Syphilis Group says it’s important GPs are vigilant about detecting and treating this condition.

“A high index of suspicion is required especially as the primary phase of syphilis can be completely asymptomatic,” says Sue. 

“Two thirds of the cases occur in men who have sex with men, however the other big change in this epidemic is that syphilis has now spread into the heterosexual population and to women of reproductive age.”

Sue tells us there were nine cases of congenital syphilis in 2017 -2018, where previously congenital syphilis was an extremely rare event. 

“We’re waiting for maternal syphilis guidelines to be released, but in the meantime, there is a recommendation to retest high risk women during pregnancy.”

For more information on syphilis and congenital syphilis, view the BPAC resources or listen to the podcasts available on the Goodfellow unit website.

Ministry of Health facts:

In 2013, there were just 82 reported cases of syphilis. In 2018 this had risen to 543 cases (454 in males and 89 in females). 

The groups most affected by syphilis are men who have sex with men (approximately 70% of all cases); Asian and Māori men, and Māori women. 

  • Identifying a need to raise awareness on social media and through schools to promote condom use and regular Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) testing
  • Improving available education on syphilis for health professionals, including lead maternity carers
  • Preventing congenital syphilis - including supporting the development of new maternal syphilis guidelines and developing new educational resources for midwives
  • Ministry of Health national social marketing campaigns to promote condom use and regular STI testing The Ministry working with local communities to increase awareness of STIs among high-risk populations 
  • The Ministry working with the Department of Corrections to include syphilis and other STI screening in prison health checks
  • Production of a new podcast about syphilis and new material about screening and STIs for primary care 
  • Introducing a text based STI check reminder
  • Providing screening in emergency departments
For more details around the action plan, visit the Ministry of Health website.