GPs urged to be vigilant for syphilis after cases soared 22% in 2015

Cases of syphilis rose by 22% over the last year, and GPs must keep in mind the ways the disease can manifest itself when seeing patients, Public Health England (PHE) has warned.

The mouth of a patient with syphilis, showing signs of the secondary stage of the disease
The mouth of a patient with syphilis, showing signs of the secondary stage of the disease

Over 5,000 cases of syphilis were diagnosed in 2015, with Londoners and men who have sex with men (MSM) disproportionately affected, a PHE report has shown.

There were 2,811 cases of syphilis diagnosed in Londoners, representing 56% of all cases in England, a rise of 22% on 2014. Of these London cases, 90% were in MSM.

PHE warned that cases have risen progressively over recent years, with cases in London soaring by 163% since 2010.

The STI is transmitted through sexual activity, including oral sex. Most cases are treatable with antibiotics and safe sex practices – such as condom use and avoiding overlapping sexual relationships – can be used to help prevent infection.

Syphilis on rise

People can be infected for years without any symptoms, but treatment is more effective the earlier the disease is caught.

PHE said the statistics suggest that ‘too many Londoners are putting themselves at risk through unsafe sex’.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, regional director for PHE London, said: ‘Worsening sexual health remains one of the biggest public health concerns facing London and it is worrying to see such alarming rises in syphilis year-on-year. Most cases of syphilis are treatable with antibiotics and it is preventable if you practice safe sex.’

Dr Patrick French, a sexual health specialist and genitourinary medicine consultant, said: ‘When I started working in sexual health in London we might have diagnosed four or five people with syphilis in a year; we can now see that number of people with syphilis in a day or two.

‘Syphilis has established itself as a major problem in London among MSM, but there is now a considerably smaller but worrying rise among heterosexuals.’

Photo: CDC/Science Photo Library

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