UCL News


UCL Diary Notice: The Return of Syphilis

25 January 2008

The sexually transmitted infection syphilis can no longer be confined to the history books - it is back with a vengeance, despite being essentially eradicated in the UK between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.

There are now more diagnoses each year than at any time since the 1940s, serving as an important indicator of the wider sexual ill health of the country.

Event: UCL Lunch Hour Lecture

Title: The Return of Syphilis

Date: Thursday 24 January 2008 at 1.15 pm

Location: Darwin Lecture Theatre, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

A UCL Lunch Hour Lecture on Thursday 24 January will explore why this infection is back on the sexual health agenda. Dr Patrick French, Consultant in Genitourinary Medicine, Mortimer Market Centre, will outline the nature of syphilis and its importance: Why is syphilis still so common worldwide when it is easy to diagnose and cure? How was syphilis eradicated in the UK? Why did it return and what does this say about the sexual health of the UK?

Talking ahead of the lecture, Dr French said: "Syphilis has become a significant epidemic. The number of diagnosed cases in the UK has gone up by more than 2000 per cent in men and 870 per cent in women in a decade - it's a level of infection not seen since 1949. We're seeing high levels in gay men and there is a parallel outbreak in heterosexual men and women. In our clinic alone, we used to see three or four men a year with Syphilis. We now can see four or five a day."

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium 'Treponema pallidum'. It can be easily diagnosed with a blood test and most cases can be treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated it will progress through three stages with increasingly serious symptoms that can lead to brain or heart damage. It is spread through sex and from mother to child during pregnancy.

Dr French added: "Sexual infection trends are not random. They come about because of patterns of sexual behaviour and so we need to carefully consider those patterns to understand why trends occur. What has changed about our sexual behaviour that has led to this increase? Because it's a disease that all but disappeared, awareness levels among the public and medical professionals aren't as high as they should be. There have been five cases in the last year of congenital syphilis, which is passed from mother to baby - it's quite extraordinary that we are seeing cases such as that in UK in the 21st century. It's hugely important that we understand why."

UCL Lunch Hour Lectures are free and open to all. The full list of lectures for Spring 2008 can be found at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lhl/.

Notes for Editors

1. Admission is free without a ticket, no need to book. However, entry is on a first-come first-served basis.

2. Lectures are held in the Darwin Lecture Theatre, University College London, Gower Street (entrance via Malet Place), London WC1E 6BT. Lectures run from 1.15 pm to 1.55pm.

3. The full listing of UCL Lunch Hour Lectures for Spring 2008 can be found at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lhl/.

4. Journalists seeking more information can contact Ruth Metcalfe in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9739, mobile: +44 (0)7990 675 947, out of hours: +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: r.metcalfe@ucl.ac.uk

5. Mortimer Market Centre is run by Camden Primary Care Trust (PCT) and is adjacent to UCL and University College London Hospitals Trust (UCLH). It contains one of the largest genitourinary medicine clinics in Europe, with over 40,000 attendances annually including 30,000 new cases.