New national action plan released to curb rise in syphilis cases

Media release

26 June 2019

The Ministry of Health has released its new National Syphilis Action Plan in an important step in reversing a growing number of cases of the infection.

Cases of syphilis in New Zealand have been on the rise, following a similar trend in other countries.

In 2018, New Zealand had 543 cases of syphilis, 454 in males and 89 in females.

That compares to 2017 with 480 cases, and 2016 with 322. Six years ago there were just 82 reported cases of syphilis.

Syphilis can be treated and cured with early intervention and antibiotics.

“We’re very concerned at the growth in numbers, particularly around the rise of congenital syphilis, when infection is spread from mother to baby during pregnancy,” says the Ministry’s Deputy Director of Public Health, Dr Niki Stefanogiannis.

“Congenital syphilis doesn’t belong in New Zealand. The numbers are too high, and it’s really important we do as much as we can now.”

According to the action plan, the groups most affected by syphilis are men who have sex with men (approximately 70% of all cases); Asian and Mâori men, and Mâori women. 

“These figures show how important it is that we improve equities and access to healthcare for all New Zealanders.”

Actions from the plan, developed in consultation with a working group made up of representatives working in the wider sexual health community, include:

  • Identifying a need to raise awareness on social media and through schools to promote condom use and regular Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) testing
  • Improving available education on syphilis for health professionals, including lead maternity carers 
  • Preventing congenital syphilis - including supporting the development of new maternal syphilis guidelines and developing new educational resources for midwives 
  • Ministry of Health national social marketing campaigns to promote condom use and regular STI testing
  • The Ministry working with local communities to increase awareness of STIs among high-risk populations
  • The Ministry working with the Department of Corrections to include syphilis and other STI screening in prison health checks
  • Production of a new podcast about syphilis and new material about screening and STIs for primary care
  • Introducing a text based STI check reminder
  • Providing screening in emergency departments.

“By increasing everyone’s knowledge and awareness of syphilis and promoting condom use and STI testing, we will improve our prevention and ultimately turn these numbers around,” says Dr Stefanogiannis. 

The action plan will be reviewed annually to ensure New Zealand’s approach to managing the rise in syphilis cases remains up to date.

View the National Syphilis Action Plan