Syphilis Rates Up Among Gay Men

Warnings have been issued to gay and bisexual men after new syphilis cases hit the highest recorded rates in almost seventy years. The sexually transmitted infection has reached the highest recorded number of cases since back in 1949, according to data obtained from Public Health England. 

There were as many as 5920 diagnoses of syphilis in 2016, an increase of as much as 12 percent on the figure of 5281, recorded just one year earlier in 2015. In 2012 the figure was just 3001, meaning the number has risen by a staggering 97 percent in just four years. The great majority of cases were transmitted by bisexual and gay men, according to experts.

An enormous challenge

According to the medical director for the sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, Dr Michael Brady, the STI rate figures are completely unacceptable. Brady says that the continuing increase in cases of syphilis, as well as growing concerns about gonorrhoea strains that are beginning to become resistant to antibiotics, represent a huge challenge. The nation’s rate of STIs and overall poor sexual health for high risk groups need to be urgently addressed. 

Brady adds that the situation is of particular concern in a climate where the public health budgets of many local authorities have suffered cuts, and that this is not the time where sexual health services should be being scaled back. According to Brady, there has been an obvious and visible impact because of the cuts to chlamydia testing, with the new figures showing that the overall number of people taking chlamydia tests has fallen by as much as 9 percent. 

Brady believes that it is vital for the Department of Health, local authorities and Public Health England to make sure that there is improved access to effective testing, treatment and prevention services for STIs and HIV, or the ongoing sexual health crisis in the United Kingdom will not be effectively addressed.


The sexually transmitted infection known as syphilis is easily curable, but when left untreated can cause very serious complications. Syphilis can be transmitted by making direct contact during anal, oral or vaginal sex with a syphilis sore. Sores can be found in the mouth or on the lips, in the rectum, or on and around areas including the anus, penis and vagina. 

There are different stages of the infection – primary and secondary, and latent and tertiary. Sores on the area first infected are common with primary syphilis, with skin rash, fever and swollen lymph nodes symptoms of secondary syphilis. There are no symptoms or signs associated with the latent stage of syphilis, but during the tertiary stage there can be severe medical problems that affect many organs of the body including the heart and the brain. If syphilis does not receive the appropriate medical treatment, the infection can spread to the eye (ocular syphilis), the brain and the nervous system (neurosyphilis). 

The right antibiotics can successfully cure the infection, but is unlikely to undo any damage it has already caused, making it vital to be tested and receive treatment for syphilis as soon as possible. A diagnosis of syphilis can only be confirmed by laboratory tests made by your doctor or an STI clinic.

Good news

There is at least some good news when it comes to sexually transmitted infections. In the same time period as the above statistics, the number of new HIV infections in gay and bisexual men has actually fallen by as much as a third, with experts pointing to the significantly increased usage of PrEP as the reason for this decline. 

According to the CNWL Consultant in Sexual Health and HIV, Dr Patrick French, there is cause for optimism in the new release of the Public Health England figures for Sexually Transmitted Infection and HIV rates in 2016. French says that the dramatic fall in the amount of new HIV infections in gay men demonstrates that big dividends are being paid by HIV testing and treatment, as well as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. The fall in cases of genital warts in both heterosexual men and women is also an indication that the vaccination for HPV in girls in the United Kingdom is also working in a successful manner.