New syphilis action plan as outbreak spreads across New Zealand

The government has announced a new national action plan as syphilis cases continue to rise around New Zealand.

The serious bacterial infection can affect the brain, spinal cord and other organs if not treated in time.

There were just 82 reported cases of syphilis in 2013 - but this shot up to 543 cases in 2018. Nearly 70 percent of cases were reported in men who have sex with men, however there's been a steady increase in diagnosed heterosexual males and females in recent years.

It's usually sexually transmitted but can also be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy or birth, resulting in serious complications and sometimes death.

Since 2017, there have been four cases of syphilis being passed onto babies from their mothers, as well as one probable case, NZME reports. Two of 2017's cases were stillbirths.

"We're very concerned at the growth in numbers, particularly around the rise of congenital syphilis, when infection is spread from mother to baby during pregnancy," says Ministry of Health (MoH) deputy director Dr Niki Stefanogiannis.

"Congenital syphilis doesn't belong in New Zealand. The numbers are too high, and it's really important we do as much as we can now."

The MoH's plan to combat syphilis includes:

  • Improving education on syphilis for health professionals
  • Preventing congenital syphilis
  • Increasing awareness of syphilis in high-risk populations
  • Promoting condom use and regular STI testing
  • Including syphilis and other STI screening in prison health checks
  • Providing screening in emergency departments

"By increasing everyone's knowledge and awareness of syphilis and promoting condom use and STI testing, we will improve our prevention and ultimately turn these numbers around," says Dr Stefanogiannis.