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Stay safe and get screened for syphilis as Hawke’s Bay cases rise

A sexual health nurse practitioner is urging people to stay safe and screen as infectious syphilis numbers rise in Hawke’s Bay.

Lei Johnson, Nurse Practitioner at Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand, Te Matau a Māui Hawke’s Bay says the organisation’s sexual health service had 12 cases of infectious syphilis in the quarter ending 30 June 2022, compared with three cases in the same quarter last year*.
“This sexually transmitted infection (STI) most commonly affects men with male sexual contacts, however our clinic has recently seen a rise in infectious syphilis among heterosexual men and women,” says Mrs Johnson, who specialises in sexual health and forensic medicine.
“We are also seeing an increase in people of reproductive age (15-25 years) with infectious syphilis, which has implications for people who are pregnant,” she says.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is treated with antibiotics. If left untreated it can cause damage to vital organs or harm unborn babies. There can be potentially fatal complications for a baby exposed to syphilis.
“While using condoms won’t completely prevent the spread of infectious syphilis (as skin-to-skin contact still occurs), they do minimise it, and are effective at preventing other harmful STIs,” Mrs Johnson says.
Syphilis symptoms include genital or mouth ulcers or rashes. However, many syphilis patients are presenting to Te Whatu Ora Hawke’s Bay’s clinics with no symptoms, which is why routine testing is key, she says.
“People don’t knowingly bring syphilis into a relationship, and the only way to know they have syphilis is through routine sexual health screening.”
Anyone who might have been exposed should visit a sexual health service or general practice. Health professionals use a blood test to diagnose syphilis, which can be done during a routine sexual health check. Patients having blood tests for other reasons can also request a syphilis check.
It can take up to 90 days from infection to becoming symptomatic, or testing positive.
“Because of the long incubation period, people who have been exposed to syphilis often test negative, so it is difficult to assess the true size of the affected population.
“This is why health professionals offer treatment to people who have had contact with someone with infectious syphilis as a precaution.”
More information can be found at the Ministry of Health’s syphilis page at