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Syphilis outbreak partly caused by 'significant restrictions' on access to testing during Covid

The number of cases are exceeding those seen before the Covid-19 pandemic.

A NATIONAL OUTBREAK of early infectious syphilis (EIS) has been declared in Ireland.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) confirmed this week that there is a “potentially large undiagnosed reservoir of syphilis infection in Ireland due in part to the impact of COVID-19″.

A spokesperson for the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme said that the pandemic led to “significant restrictions” in people’s access to testing in sexual health clinics. 

Cases had been rising here before the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a significant decline during the first wave of the pandemic, cases increased throughout last year with a total of 562 reported.

The HPSC has said that cases are now on the rise again. While the data for 2021 is incomplete, 242 cases were reported in the first four months of the year.

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79% of cases were in Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow, followed by 9% in Cork and Kerry. Limerick, Clare and Tipperary North accounted for 4% of the cases.

91% were in males while the proportion of cases in females has nearly doubled from 4.5% in 2018 to 9% in 2021.

The highest rates were in those aged 30 to 34 at 22%, and those aged 25 to 29 at 20%. 15% of cases were among those aged 35 to 39 compared to 9% of cases who were aged 20 to 24.

Syphilis is easily treated but highly infectious, and many people with the condition often don’t develop symptoms. 

The HSE say that if left untreated, it can cause “serious health problems” to the heart, brain, eyes and nervous system that could take years to develop. It can also pass from pregnant women to their child, potentially causing serious harm. 

The outbreak has been partly put down to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on health services. 

Almost all sexual health services closed during the first wave of Covid-19 infections. While STI services have now resumed testing, they are still operating at a limited capacity. 

Some online booking systems remain down due to the recent cyberattack on the HSE, but the health service is “working towards restoration of normal service activity”. 

The pandemic has also significantly impacted access to HIV testing and support, threatening to undermine progress on HIV in Ireland.

The Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) in Dublin has been closed or operating with reduced services since the onset of restrictions last year, affecting men in the LGBT+ community who use the clinic for HIV screening, treatment and advice, as well as other medical services.

Currently, the service is only taking bookings for PrEP – a medication to prevent contraction of HIV – and its asymptomatic screening services. Appointments can only be made over the phone due to the HSE cyberattack. 

In response to the syphilis outbreak, the MPOWER Programme at HIV Ireland have announced that they are offering free syphilis testing to gay and bisexual men at their pop-up clinic at the HIV Ireland office in Dublin City Centre.

In a post on social media, they said: “Syphilis is on the rise among gay and bi men in Ireland. It’s easy to get but also easy to cure. Some people get symptoms, but a lot don’t at all. The only way to know for sure is to get tested.”

Appointments can be booked on their website.

Elsewhere, a free walk-in STI testing service is available in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin every Friday this month.

You can also order a free STI home test kit from SH:24 as part of a pilot project with the HSE. 

The online testing service has been extended in Dublin, Cork and Kerry, with the Dublin catchment extended to include Kildare and Wicklow.

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