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Further rise in syphilis cases among gay men in London

There has been an explosion in the incidence of syphilis in gay and bisexual men in London since 2010; some men should consider testing every 2-3 months

Further rise in syphilis cases among gay men in London
Wellphotos |

New figures released today by Public Health England (PHE) says that almost two-thirds of all syphilis cases in the UK in 2015 were diagnosed in London.

Of 5,042 cases, 3,000 were in the capital, and of these, 90% were recorded in men who have sex with men. That represents an 18% increase on the 2014 figures.

Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics if caught early enough but early symptoms can go unnoticed, meaning some people don’t get checked out until the disease has progressed.

If untreated, the bacterial infection can cause serious neurological conditions and, eventually, death.

Read also: Syphilis: What is it and why gay men should be concerned 

Since 2010, the incidence of syphilis has risen by 163% in London. The chances of becoming infected or passing on the virus are greatly reduced if condoms are used for sex.

PHE recommends people have a full STI check up at least once a year, or every three months if they are having unsafe sex with new or casual partners. It also recommends condom use, even between partners who believe they have the same HIV status.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, regional director for PHE London, said in a statement: ‘Worsening sexual health remains one of the biggest public health concerns facing London and it is worrying to see such alarming rises in syphilis year-on-year. Most cases of syphilis are treatable with antibiotics and it is preventable if you practice safe sex.’

‘I hope today’s report will further raise awareness of sexually transmitted infections including syphilis and drive home the messages about the importance of practicing safe sex, which includes using condoms, regularly being tested and avoiding overlapping sexual relationships. All of these will reduce the risk of STIs.’

‘It seems that use of dating apps, sex venues and chem sex are all playing a major role in the high number of syphilis cases’

Dr Patrick French, a sexual health specialist and genitourinary medicine consultant at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, said, ‘When I started working in sexual health in London we might have diagnosed four or five people with syphilis in a year; we can now see that number of people with syphilis in a day or two.

‘Syphilis has established itself as a major problem in London among men who have sex with men, but there is now a considerably smaller but worrying rise among heterosexuals.’

Matthew Hodson, Chief Executive of gay men’s health charity GMFA said, ‘It seems that use of dating apps, sex venues and chem sex are all playing a major role in the high number of syphilis cases diagnosed among gay men in the last year.’

Hodson again stressed the importance of gay men getting tested at least once a year, or even every couple of months if they have sex without condoms with new partners. He also said that men with HIV are putting themselves at risk of syphilis if they have condomless sex with others – whether they’re HIV positive or not.

‘Over half of the men who were diagnosed with syphilis in these figures were already living with diagnosed HIV, which illustrates how important it is that we consider the full sexual health needs of gay men, and not limit our thinking or our resources solely to preventing HIV infections.

‘A man living with HIV man who only has condomless sex with other HIV-positive men is risking transmission of a wide range of STIs, including syphilis and gonorrhea.’

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