Sexual Health Monday November 14, 2011

The renewed threat of syphilis

Syphilis is a dangerous STI that used to be extremely common in the UK and Europe. However, this has changed since the 80’s, largely thanks to the availability of more effective treatment. In recent years syphilis infections were mostly confined to small groups, primarily adult homosexual men, as illustrated in the below chart detailing information from the Centre for Disease Control (US). However, experts are saying that they’ve started to notice it becoming more prevalent in teenagers in the UK.

Although the number of teenagers being diagnosed is small and mostly limited to certain areas of the UK, it is still worrying, as syphilis can spread quite rapidly - especially since many people don’t know they have it at first.

The syphilis bacteria can be passed from one person to another by coming into direct contact with a syphilis sore, which mainly form on the genitals, anus, vagina, feet, lips or inside the rectum. It is also passed through the sharing of bodily fluids which is usually facilitated by anal, oral, or vaginal sex, or from a mother to her child during pregnancy or birth.

The first signs of a primary infection are most likely to appear around three months after a person has been infected. This is usually in the form of a painless reddish or blackish-brown lump that develops on the genitals, anus, mouth or nipples. The presence of the lump may also be accompanied by glandular swelling in the area.

However, the ulcer will disappear rather quickly, which is then followed by the secondary stage a few months later. During the secondary stage a person may start to develop rashes or a sore throat. If the condition isn’t treated soon during this stage, the illness could move into the tertiary stage, where it can become extremely dangerous, affecting a person’s internal organs as well as the brain.

The president of the Society of Sexual Health Advisers, Martin Murchie, believes that the small number of teenagers that have been diagnosed with this serious sexually transmitted disease probably aren't representative of the actual amount of teenagers that have the condition. He also says that teenagers using social networks to arrange anonymous sexual encounters over the internet are making it more difficult to find past sexual partners, which could make prevention difficult.

However, what can be done to stop the syphilis infection from becoming more widespread than it already is?

Dr Petra Boyton, a Lecturer in International Health Services Research, commenting on the issues of the rising number of young people with syphilis and the media’s role, said that: “We tend to try and blame singular causes - having sex education or the lack of sex education (depending on different pro/anti perspectives), the media, pornography, facebook, alcohol. We tend to focus less on access to education - more generally, poverty, confidence, communication skills, aspirations and family support. There's no one thing that will fix it but certainly more positive media coverage of sex generally (covering some of the factors listed above) as well as more comprehensive information on STIs is useful.”

Many young people are likely to think that syphilis isn’t an issue, because of the emphasis being placed on more common STIs such as chlamydia or herpes. However, it’s just as important for people to educate themselves as it is for the health services to take the right steps to avoid it becoming a serious national health issue like it has been in the past.

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