A specialist in public health has described a rise in cases of early infectious syphilis in the region as “a cause for concern”.
A national outbreak of early infectious syphilis (EIS) was declared in recent weeks with 242 cases reported nationally between January 1 and April 30.
Speaking to the Echo, Dr Peter Barrett, specialist in public health medicine with the HSE South, said that across Cork and Kerry, public health experts have witnessed an increase in notifications of EIS this year compared with previous years.
According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, Cork and Kerry accounted for around 9 per cent of all cases of EIS reported from January to mid-May.
“We are only six and a half months into 2021 but we are seeing a clear upward trend [in the HSE South] after a reduction in numbers in 2020. We reckon this may have been because there was reduced testing going on last year during the first wave of the pandemic in particular.
“Certainly the trend we are seeing is a cause for concern, not just compared with 2020, but compared with previous years,” Dr Barrett said.
The public health expert said that people with syphilis may experience non-specific illnesses or symptoms such as a rash.
“Syphilis is a tricky infection because there’s a whole range of symptoms - it can present with sores on the genitalia, it can present as a rash somewhere on the body- sometimes on the palms of the hands, or as swollen glands. If you are feeling non-specifically unwell, if you’ve got a rash or swollen glands, or if you have any problems with the eyes, for example double vision, particularly if you have been having unprotected sex, it is very important to get tested,” he said.
Dr Barrett said that if caught early, syphilis is treatable.
“It is very important to try and get diagnosed at an early stage. If it’s caught early you not only avoid a range of complications but you avoid passing it on to sexual partners if it’s treated early. It’s in everyone's best interest to get tested and to find out one way or another.
"Syphilis can be a serious disease if it’s left undiagnosed. It can result in a number of complications particularly with the eyes, and with the heart and with the neurological system as well if it’s left undiagnosed for a long period of time so we are very keen for people to get tested, particularly if they are in a risk group or if they have had a number of sexual partners where they haven’t been using condoms.”
A range of testing options is currently available including an option for home-testing.
“Free home testing has been available since January of this year and it will be continuing until at least the end of August and it has gone well so far. There’s been good uptake. It has certainly helped us to identify cases of sexually transmitted infections within the community.
It is working well.
“It is one of multiple options. Some people might prefer to attend a public health STI clinic or might prefer to discuss with their GP in the first instance,” Dr Barrett said.
The public health doctor said that the key message would be if someone is sexually active with new or multiple partners it is important to use a condom, and there are multiple testing options available for STIs.
“It is on the rise unfortunately so we are strongly encouraging people to get tested.” Dr Barrett stressed that "patients' information will always be treated with the utmost of respect and confidentiality whether they go for home testing or through an STI clinic, that shouldn't stop anyone from presenting for testing."