Syphilis 'back with a vengeance'

Last updated 05:00 09/03/2013

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Syphilis fuelled by iPhone applications such as Grindr have "come back with a vengeance" among Christchurch's young homosexual community.

Sexual health physicians say the Government needs to take immediate action before the infection spreads into the heterosexual community, where it has the potential to claim the lives of unborn children.

Christchurch fielded a fourfold increase in infectious syphilis from 2011 to last year and so far this year 16 people have been treated for syphilis at the city's Sexual Health Centre - with six of those infectious.

Canterbury District Health Board Sexual Health Centre physician Dr Heather Young said sexual health was "one of the most neglected hospital specialties" in New Zealand.

"If there is no specific action taken, it [syphilis] has the potential for rapid spread and I fear we will be just sitting here watching a train wreck," Young said.

Infectious syphilis waned in Christchurch late last year but had "come back with a vengeance" this year.

Because government funding does not cover most sexually transmitted infections (STI), treatment rests with regional health boards.

Syphilis has been on the increase in New Zealand since 2003, with a rise of more than 193 per cent of cases between 2004 and 2006.

Rates peaked in Christchurch last year, Young said.

Not only did the number of cases leap from seven in 2011 to 28 last year, but the average age and way that men were contracting the infection also changed dramatically.

Most men who caught syphilis in 2011 were in their mid-40s and contracted the disease at sex-on-site venues, such as brothels.

However, last year the median age dropped to 26, with some sufferers as young as 19. It was most commonly caught after the use of social media or iPhone applications such as Grindr, Boy Ahoy and NZ Dating, Young said.

"The highest number of people contracting infectious syphilis is men having sex with men and many are using social media sites or smartphones to search for sexual partners."

The applications enabled men to meet "anywhere safe and convenient" for casual sex.

Young knew some patients who used Grindr and had had more than 50 sexual partners in three months. Others did not even know the name of their last partner.

It wasn't until a patient showed Young how the application worked that she realised "the ease of sexual partner acquisition".

"I didn't truly understand it until I saw it. About 50 people popped up in the immediate vicinity with directions on how to access them," she said.

"People can access sexual partners with the greatest freedom they have ever had now."

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One of the big concerns was syphilis' potential to spread into the heterosexual community where it can be transferred from mother to baby during pregnancy.

Congenital syphilis could result in miscarriages, still births and abnormalities in babies, she said.

Many other developed countries are also experiencing a rise of syphilis cases, but have already introduced measures to halt its spread.

"Syphilis should be a top priority [for the Government] because it's got serious consequences," Young said.

Dr Ed Coughlan, clinical director of the Sexual Health Centre, said the issue was "very concerning".

Coughlan urged the community to have regular sexual health checkups.

Doctors around the city had been alerted and an advertising campaign was being published on Facebook and in homosexual magazines, he said.

Coughlan and Christchurch medical officer of health Dr Ramon Pink have also written a joint report to the Ministry of Health, urging the Government to initiate a national response with Pink calling for a "nationally co-ordinated approach".

"We have texting, Facebook and Twitter and many ways in which we as a society are more connected but it is very important for us to realise that despite our advances in technology, these diseases are still prevalent in our community and they do pose a risk," he said.

"We cannot take it lightly and we have to act appropriately."

"Pockets" of the outbreak had flared up in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland and Pink said if nothing was done to contain the infection it would only be a matter of time before it went national.

The Government has identified sexual health as a "key work area" in its 2010-2013 Statement of Intent.

Ministry of Health chief medical officer Dr Don Mackie said the Government invested about $55 million in sexual and reproduction health services through ministry contracts and district health board provider agreements every year.

Environmental Science and Research also carries out STI surveillance on behalf of the ministry.

- The Press

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