Rise in syphilis cases among gay and bisexual men in the Norwich area.

Updated: 15/July/2016

As we hit the height of the festive season, health professionals in Norfolk are urging people to practice safer sex following a 43% increase in the number of diagnosed syphilis cases this year*. The majority (80%) of these were among gay and bisexual men.

Although the number of cases is low, the increase we have seen is significant. 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. This 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.

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. Tests currently show HIV has not damaged his immune system but he will have regular blood tests in future to monitor this and will receive treatment for HIV. 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.”

Dr Giri Shankar, Consultant in communicable disease control, Public Health England said:

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“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. ”

Dr Jo Evans, Consultant in Genito Urinary Medicine, Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital said:

“Lots of people carry STIs in their system and are unaware of this, so 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, especially amongst men who have sex with men. 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.”

Dr Augustine Pereira, Consultant in Public Health at Norfolk County Council said:

“The chance of catching other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV is high for those who are already infected with syphilis and other STIs. Our advice is to use a condom at all times and during all forms of sex, including oral sex.”

A recent article in Lancet shows that gay and bisexual men in the UK are experiencing record high diagnosis rates for various sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV. According to this, over a half of the new diagnosis of HIV and almost three quarters of new cases of syphilis is diagnosed among gay and bisexual men.

Syphilis can start off as a painless ulcer, usually on the genitals or mouth. These are highly infectious. As the infection progresses people may develop swollen glands, flu-like symptoms, and rashes. Syphilis can be treated with a course of antibiotics.

Anyone concerned about their sexual behaviour, any symptoms they may be showing or need some advice on practising safer sex, should contact their local sexual health clinic, Norfolk LGBT Project or GP.