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.”

It can take up to 90 days from infection to becoming symptomatic, or testing positive.

More information can be found at the Ministry of Health’s syphilis page at 


*Please note: figures don’t include cases that presented to Te Whatu Ora Hawke’s Bay’s Emergency Department or to primary healthcare.

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