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Syphilis is caused by a bacteria-like spirochete Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. Syphilis can be transmitted between partners during sexual intercourse and from an infected pregnant woman across the placenta to a developing baby.

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Latest reports

False positive treponemal (syphilis) IgM enzyme immunoassay results: Adverse incident report

Syphilis and Lymphogranuloma Venereum: Resurgent Sexually Transmitted Infections in the UK: 2009 report

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In England, diagnoses of syphilis have increased substantially since 1997, driven in part by outbreaks in cities such as Manchester and London.

Concern about the potential spread of syphilis amongst both men who have sex with men, and heterosexual men and women, has resulted in the development of surveillance initiatives by the HPA in partnership with Public Health, Microbiology and colleagues in Genitourinary Medicine.

Sexual health messages

Good sexual health is a key component of the prevention of infection with syphilis.  In particular, people at risk should be encouraged to:

  • Use a condom during sexual intercourse.  Patients should also be advised that syphilis can be transmitted through oral sex.
  • Have fewer sexual partners and avoid over-lapping sexual relationships.  This reduces the risk of becoming infected with an STI.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of infection and seek early medical advice.
  • Get tested regularly.  Consulting clinical services regularly increases the chances that infection can be identified, even if there are no symptoms.

Congenital syphilis

The HPA in collaboration with the UCL Institute of Child Health and the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit is undertaking surveillance of congenital syphilis in children under 2 years of age between January 2010 and December 2012.  The survey aims to accurately estimate the incidence of congenital syphilis, identify factors associated with cases of congenital infection and inform efforts to improve healthcare systems to ensure that women and their babies are managed appropriately.  The investigation complements a study of antenatal screening pathways being undertaken by the Syphilis Task Group, a sub-committee of the National Screening Committee.

Further details are available on the BPSU website at:

British Paediatric Surveillance Unit logo