Syphilis: Making a comeback!

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Guess who’s making a comeback?

Nope, sadly, it’s not Britney Spears, it’s syphilis.

You know, the STI from the olden days that was pretty much done away with? Well, it’s gearing up for a 21st-century reboot unless we all do our bit to stop it in its tracks. And the best way to do that? Regular testing.

According to the WA Health Department’s latest STI/BBV report, the quarter ending March 31st 2020 showed a 23% increase of syphilis notifications compared to the same time the previous year.

Since 2015, notification rates have soared, going up 40% for men who have sex with men, and more than doubling in those who identify as heterosexual. There was even one case of congenital syphilis, transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy, recorded in the first quarter of 2019.

Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum which is found in the blood. It can be transmitted through having oral, anal, and vaginal sex, as well as close skin-to-skin contact and through the placenta during pregnancy. If left untreated it can lead to skin lesions, cardiovascular and/or neurological disease.

It presents in four stages, primary, secondary, latent and tertiary, with each stage displaying different symptoms and complications. However, 50% of cases show no symptoms at all, so it’s important to get a test so that you know your status for sure.

The good news? When syphilis is detected in the early stages it is easily treatable with the right treatment. The incubation period for primary syphilis is anywhere from 9 to 90 days, and for secondary 30 to 150 days.

We as a community have recently learnt the value of contact tracing to break the cycle of transmission, so if you do test positive for syphilis it’s important to alert your sexual partners that may have been affected.
That means for primary syphilis, notify anyone you’ve had sex with for the duration of the symptoms and three months prior, and for secondary, anyone whilst you were experiencing symptoms and six months prior to that.

Testing is the key here, as condoms are not always foolproof when it comes to syphilis. Luckily, we’re getting a leg up against congenital syphilis, as we test as part of the routine antenatal screen, but it’s important to include syphilis in routine STI checks.

Because, when it comes to comebacks, we can handle Britney, but syphilis is one thing that is better off left in the past.

If you have questions about Syphilis or other STIs, reach out to us here or phone (08) 9482 0000.



Quarterly Surveillance Report, Notifiable Sexually Transmissible Infections and Blood-borne Viruses in Western Australia, Period ending 31 March 2020, Vol. 19 (2), issued June 2020

Our Mission

To minimise the impact and further transmission of HIV, other blood borne viruses and sexually transmissible infections. To reduce social, legal and policy barriers which prevent access to health information and effective support and prevention services.

WA AIDS Council would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Custodians of this country throughout Australia, and their strength, resilience and connection to land and community. In particular, the WA AIDS Council would like to acknowledge the Wadjuk people of the Noongar Nation as the traditional custodians of the land in which our office is located.


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