There has been a significant increase in cases of early infectious syphilis in the Cork area in the past year, with almost 8 in 10 reported cases among men who have sex with men (MSM). Compared to January to June 2015, when seven cases were reported in Cork & Kerry, cases have trebled, with 23 cases of early infectious syphilis reported from July to December 2015 and 21 cases from January to June 2016. The HSE Department of Public Health in Cork has expressed concern and is encouraging all sexually active men who have or have had sex with men, and women whose partners have sex with men, to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and always use a condom when having sex. “Safer sex practices and regular testing and treatment of infectious syphilis are the key to prevention”, the Department of Public Health said.

Ireland map/CIA
Ireland map/CIA

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a specific type of bacteria, which if not treated promptly and with the correct antibiotics can cause long term serious problems. It is passed from person to person during unprotected anal or oral or vaginal sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who’s infected. The first symptom (primary syphilis) is usually the appearance of a painless sore at the location where syphilis entered the body, but syphilis has been called the ‘Great Pretender’ as its symptoms can look like many other diseases. Up to half of people with syphilis may not notice any symptoms; therefore it is vital to get tested.

In relation to the rise in Cork, Dr. Aileen Kitching, Consultant in Public Health Medicine at the Department of Public Health in Cork said: “the cases we are seeing are mostly in men who have sex with men with over half of male cases in older adult age groups, over 35 years of age. Around one in 5 of these cases have had one or more other STIs.  Increased public awareness about STIs including signs and symptoms and where you can get tested is essential. Having syphilis once does not protect a person from becoming infected again. Even following successful treatment, people can be reinfected. So, unless you know that all of your sex partners have been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis again from an untreated partner. We also remind everyone of the importance of using a condom every time they have sex”.

Professor Mary Horgan, Consultant in Infectious Diseases at CUH and clinical lead for STI services in Cork and Kerry, said: “I have seen a significant increase in syphilis among men who have sex with men (MSM). I would encourage MSM who have had unprotected sex, including unprotected oral sex, to book an STI test as soon as possible. While 90% of the cases we are seeing are primary syphilis, up to half of people with syphilis may not have any symptoms, and therefore could pass it on unintentionally. Syphilis is curable with treatment. Unrecognised, untreated syphilis can lead to serious long-term complications. The earlier we diagnose and treat, the better. As syphilis can take up to 90 days to show up on a blood test, we encourage routine twice yearly testing for all sexually active MSM, as part of regular STI screening”.