Syphilis: It's spreading in Wellington, its nasty, its curable
By Matt Akersten
18th January 2007 - 12:00 pm
THE LOCAL OUTBREAK
"An outbreak of syphilis has hit Wellington, according the region's top sexual health practitioner, who has issued a broad call to gay and bisexual men to get tested now." – GayNZ.com news, June 2006.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection transmitted through sexual contact – whether oral, anal, or vaginal – which then spreads through the body via the bloodstream. Although it's easily cured, syphilis can have debilitating long-term effects if left untreated.
Until recently, syphilis was uncommon in New Zealand, but concerns about a marked increase in cases amongst Wellington gay men were voiced last year, and it seems the situation hasn't improved since. As most men who have sex with men do not use condoms for oral sex, the infection has spread rapidly there, particularly through anonymous sexual encounters.
Regional Manager of Wellington's Awhina Centre, Daniel Eakins, says the marked increase in syphilis cases at Wellington Sexual Health Services has continued up until October 2006. “We don't know what the figures are yet for November and December, but it is believed this increase has continued since,” he explains.
Research from the Wellington Sexual Health Clinic show 30% of men diagnosed with syphilis show no symptoms of having the infection – so getting tested regularly is the only way to make sure you're free of the STI. “Some people don't have any symptoms in the initial stages,” confirms Dr Jane MacDonald, Clinical Director of Wellington Sexual Health. “Some people develop nasty looking but reasonably painless ulcers on the genitals or the mouth or anus. Unless these sores are visible, infected men may not notice them, and continue to spread the disease, which is incredibly infectious.”
Men with HIV are particularly vulnerable to the effects of syphilis. Recent research shows that for positive men, syphilis lowers CD4 cell count and increases viral load. Plus, men co-infected with both HIV and syphilis are three to five times more likely to transmit HIV through unprotected oral or anal sex.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
A partnership was established between the NZ AIDS Foundation's Gay Men's Health and Positive Health Services, Wellington's Sexual Health Services, Checkmate Sauna, and Wakefield Sauna to offer free anonymous syphilis testing at Wellington saunas during November and December last year. “A team of health professionals including a registrar who volunteered his time, a male nurse from Wellington Sexual Health Services, and NZAF staff outside of their normal work hours provided outreach testing fortnightly at the saunas,” says Eakins.
“We have not offered syphilis testing at the venues since mid-December," he adds, "although syphilis testing continues to be offered at Wellington Sexual Health Services and through NZAF Centres.” Gay Men's Health also developed a health promotion campaign "Syphilis - Knock it on the head -- Get tested", a special web site (www.gettested.co.nz), and condom packs to raise the awareness of syphilis; what it is, how it is transmitted, how to avoid it, how to know if you have it, and how to cure it if you do.
Eakins says input for the campaign was provided by Wellington Sexual Health Services and the resource was distributed around Wellington where gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men gather. “The campaign reached a number of men who had never tested for HIV or STIs previously. The increase of awareness about syphilis and the importance of regular sexual health checks for sexually active people is considered to be the success of the project. Later this month NZAF and Wellington Sexual Health Service staff will meet to discuss the project in more detail and where to go from here."
Eakins says his team is currently in the process of analysing the success of the onsite testing at the saunas." Although the project did not identify any cases of syphilis amongst the people that were tested onsite, a number of cases were identified through testing at the Awhina Centre and Sexual Health Services from men who had heard about our testing campaign. Other sexually transmitted infections were also identified as a result of the campaign.”
Eakins also believes the outreach of testing at sex-on-site venues may have been a contributing factor toward the 50.8% increase of HIV testing at the NZAF Awhina Centre during the last six months of 2006.
“The bottom line with syphilis is that it's completely treatable,” says sexual health expert Jane MacDonald. Treatment is by way of penicillin, but there are alternatives for those allergic to penicillin.
“The best thing people can do, if they're worried, if they have any symptoms they're worried about, but just if they feel they've been at risk, is to come in. It's easy to do a check, we have the results available within about a week.”
Testing for syphilis involves blood being taken and any sores being swabbed. Your doctor or a medical lab might also be able to examine the fluid from the sore under a microscope. Men can be tested for other easily treatable infections at the same time.
Phone Wellington Sexual Health on 04 385 9879 for an appointment or call 0800 188 881 for your nearest GP who has received specific STD training.
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