New medical advice recommends women at increased risk be tested for syphilis twice during pregnancy.
The updated guidance comes as rates of the sexually transmitted infection are on the rise. Between 2015 and 2020, the notification of infectious syphilis cases rose 90% Australia-wide.
HealthPathways Clinical Editor Dr Kate Allan said three population groups were particularly at risk of syphilis:
- men who have sex with men
- people living in regional and remote Aboriginal communities
- women of child-bearing age.
‘What we have always done is tested all pregnant women at their first antenatal visit as part of their routine blood screening,’ Dr Allan said. ‘The advice now is that women who are at a higher risk need to be tested again at 24 to 28 weeks.
‘Not everyone with syphilis has symptoms, so they may not realise they have an infection. That’s why it’s important for those people in the high-risk groups to get tested regularly.’
Dr Allan said the symptoms of syphilis were often not severe and could be non-specific.
‘The first signs are usually sores or ulcers and they can be either on the genitals or in the mouth,’ she said. ‘Over time, in secondary or late syphilis, you can get non-specific symptoms like rashes or swollen lymph nodes, joint aches, headaches, and they can be symptoms you’d get in a variety of other illnesses.
‘It’s easily treated with antibiotics. That’s why it’s important that we detect cases early.’
If not treated, the infection may remain latent for life or progress to tertiary syphilis 5 to 35 years after first infection. Tertiary syphilis can involve the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, spinal cord, liver, skin, bones and joints.
For more information on assessment, management and referral, visit the Syphilis HealthPathway.