Health professionals are urging people to practice safer sex following a massive increase in the number of diagnosed syphilis cases in parts of England. Most these were among men who have sex with men.

Syphilis is an unpleasant infection which can go unnoticed for weeks and if untreated may lead to serious complications. Some people experience sores or ulcers at the site of the infection, which can then develop into nasty rashes and people can experience flu-like symptoms.

Men who have sex with men are advised to have an HIV and STI screen at least annually, and every three months if having unprotected sex (this includes using protection half way through a sexual activity) with new or casual partners.

Dr Giri Shankar, Consultant in communicable disease control at Public Health England said: ‘Unprotected sex, especially with casual and multiple partners, is the biggest risk for getting syphilis or any other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Along with the more traditional ways of people meeting for casual sex, social networking sites are making this behaviour easier, especially in the gay community. The only way to get protection from STIs is to practise safer sex. If you are a man who has sex with men or has changed partner recently, get tested for syphilis.’

‘Lots of people carry STIs in their system and are unaware of this,’ added Dr Jo Evans, Consultant in Genito Urinary Medicine at Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital. ‘It is essential to use a condom every time you have sex to avoid catching something unpleasant. We are particularly worried about the recent increase in syphilis. If you’ve had a new partner recently and not always used condoms get yourself checked; if you are a man who has sex with men you are at a higher risk, even if using condoms – get tested now.’

A recent case study shows how having unprotected sex can affect your life:
A 32 year-old male visited his GP with a rash and sore throat. He didn’t mention a recent visit to a London sauna where he had sex with two men. Antibiotics cleared the rash but the patient was still worried about HIV so went to the sexual health clinic to be tested. He was then diagnosed with recently catching HIV and syphilis. Telling his regular partner was difficult but prompted him to also be tested. Fortunately, the partner tested negative. They are still together and now always use condoms.


For more information about syphilis, including symptoms and treatment, see the NHS Choices website.