STIs: Why is syphilis is on the rise?

(BBC) – Syphilis might be more commonly associated with centuries past. But it’s been on the rise for the past decade in England, with more cases last year than in any year since 1949.

The disease was, in effect, eradicated in the UK in the mid-80s only to re-emerge around 1999.

BBC Reality Check wanted to know why this ancient disease is rearing its head in England in the 21st Century.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics. Its symptoms include:

  • sores around the genitals and mouth
  • a rash on the hands and feet
  • tiredness
  • headaches and joint pain
  • a high temperature

Left untreated over many years, it can spread to the brain, and be fatal.

Syphilis is still relatively uncommon, making up fewer than 2% of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) diagnosed in England 2017.

The fact that we’re dealing with a small overall number of cases makes the percentage increase look more dramatic – 1,000 extra cases in 2017 equated to a 20% rise. The same number of extra cases of chlamydia would represent less than a 1% rise.

But nevertheless, there has been a steady rise with the number of diagnosed cases more than doubling in a decade – 7,137 last year up from 2,874 in 2008.

The increase in syphilis was almost all among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, according to government agency Public Health England, accounting for 78% of all cases diagnosed last year.

Public Health England said it plans “to increase numbers and frequency of tests in populations at higher risk of infection, to promote early detection and treatment”.