Status:
Active
Health advisory:
180009
Date Issued:
09 Aug 2018
Issued by:
Dr Brett Sutton, Deputy Chief Health Officer (Communicable Disease)
Issued to:
Health Professionals

Key messages

  • Victorian syphilis notifications continue to increase in women as well as in men who have sex with men (MSM).
  • Congenital syphilis is re-emerging. It can cause serious birth defects including fetal death. 
  • Syphilis infection increases both susceptibility to acquiring and transmissibility of HIV infection.
  • Screen all at risk groups: MSM, bisexual men and their female partners, heterosexuals with multiple sexual partners, women of reproductive age, pregnant women and those previously tested for other STIs.
  • Refer pregnant women with syphilis for specialist advice and treatment.
  • Contact sexual partners of syphilis cases at the time of diagnosis and test and treat for syphilis without waiting for results.
  • Use long acting intramuscular penicillin formulations (benzathine penicillin). Do not use short acting formulations (e.g. benzyl penicillin) as they are ineffective.
    Educate patients about transmission (vaginal, anal and oral sex), prevention strategies (condoms greatly reduce transmission) and early symptom recognition.

What is the issue?

Notifications for infectious syphilis (defined as infection less than two years duration including primary, secondary and early latent presentations) reached a record high in 2017. A total of 1,337 cases of infectious syphilis were notified in Victoria, compared to 1,128 cases in 2016 and 949 cases in 2015, representing 19 per cent and 41per cent increase respectively. The large majority of notified cases continue to occur in males with 74 per cent of males reporting male sexual partners as the source of infection. A third of the cases in MSM were in HIV positive MSM and of these, two thirds were reinfections.

There has been a continued increase of notified cases among women over the last three years. In 2017, 146 cases were notified (representing 11 per cent of total cases) compared to 100 cases in 2016 (8 per cent of total cases) and 52 in 2015 (5 per cent of total cases). The increase of syphilis in women is of particular public health concern as syphilis can cause serious birth defects including fetal death.

For the first time since 2004, congenital syphilis has re-emerged in Victoria, with two cases notified in 2017. One case resulted in fetal death. Women may be unaware of their risk of syphilis.

Screening at risk groups, including antenatal screening, and adequate timely treatment of cases and sexual partners are crucial for the prevention of syphilis infections.

Who is at risk?

The following groups are at increased risk of syphilis infection:

  • men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • female partners of MSM
  • pregnant women and women of reproductive age
  • heterosexual men and women, particularly with the following risk factors: multiple sexual partners, travelers returning from countries where syphilis is more prevalent and people who inject drugs
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • sex workers
  • anyone diagnosed with an STI other than syphilis.

Symptoms and transmission

Syphilis can be transmitted by vaginal, anal and oral sex. Condoms greatly reduce the risk of transmission. Transplacental infection of the fetus can occur during pregnancy. It occurs with high frequency in untreated primary and secondary syphilis infection in pregnant women, and with lower frequency in later stages of the disease (e.g. latent syphilis). The incubation period can range from 10 days to three months and is usually three weeks. A case is considered infectious until the end of the early latent period, which is approximately two years after infection if untreated.

Syphilis is often asymptomatic making screening a crucial element in detection and control of syphilis.

Recommendations

Testing and Screening

Test all patients presenting with symptoms consistent with syphilis infection (for example, any genital skin or mucous membrane lesion or an unexplained rash).

  • Screen all groups at risk:
    • Screen all MSM for syphilis at least annually with blood tests for syphilis; Screen MSM more often (e.g. every 3 months) if one or more of the following applies: any unprotected anal sex, more than 10 sexual partners in the last 6 months, participation in group sex, use of recreational drugs during sex.
    • HIV positive MSM should have a syphilis test every time (an opt-out strategy) they have blood tests for routine HIV monitoring. HIV positive MSM and HIV positive bisexual men should also have regular screening for other STIs including gonorrhoea and blood borne viruses (BBVs).
    • Screen bisexual men for syphilis and other STIs.
    • Screen all people on PrEP in three monthly intervals and counsel them on combination prevention methods.
  • Screen all women of reproductive age.
  • Screen all pregnant women for syphilis, other STIs and BBVs at the first antenatal visit.
    • Repeat screening for pregnant women with risk factors at 28 to 32 weeks and at delivery. Risk factors include: women with multiple sexual partners, female sexual partners of MSM, women who inject drugs, women of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin, women with overseas sexual contacts where syphilis is more prevalent. Sex workers may also be at greater risk if working unregulated.
  • Screen heterosexual men and women with risk factors: multiple sexual partners, travelers returning from countries where syphilis is more prevalent and people who inject drugs, sex workers.

Notify all cases to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Treatment of cases and contacts

  • Treat all cases of syphilis in accordance with the current guidelines.
  • Correct antibiotic choice, dosage and duration are required to ensure syphilis is cured and complications prevented. Use long acting intramuscular penicillin formulations (benzathine penicillin). Do not use short acting formulations (for example, benzyl penicillin) as they are ineffective.
  • Test and treat all sexual contacts of syphilis cases without waiting for test results. Immediate treatment of contacts prevents re-infection of the index case and further transmission.
  • Refer pregnant women for specialist advice and treatment.

Partner notification

  • Ensure that all possible attempts are made to contact sexual partners of cases with syphilis at the time of diagnosis. 
  • Innovative partner notification tools are available to contact partners anonymously via SMS or email. Undertake partner notification at the time of consultation or strongly encourage your patients to contact their partners themselves. Partner notification tools are available at:
  • The partner notification officers (PNOs) from the department are available to assist. The PNOs can contact the sexual partners of a person diagnosed with an STI, provide advice and referral to testing. Any identifying information about your patients is kept confidential. The PNOs can be contacted on 9096 3367 or via email at contact.tracers@dhhs.vic.gov.au

Patient education

  • Advise patients to practice safe sex.
  • Provide advice regarding prevention strategies, early symptom recognition and periodic screening for groups at risk. Advise that syphilis can be transmitted through oral and anal sex. Emphasise that safe sex practices (i.e. condom use) greatly reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Counsel PrEP recipients on prevention combination methods (PrEP and condom use, undetectable HIV viral loads) and regular screening for STIs.

More information

Clinical information

Patient information

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