Warnings for sexually transmitted diseases are making a big comeback in Leicestershire

Cases of sexually transmitted diseases linked to 15th century England are increasing at an alarming rate in Leicestershire. Figures from England’s Health Safety Agency (UKHSA) show there were 81 cases of syphilis in the region last year – a 45 per cent jump from 56 cases in 2021.

Last year’s infection rate for Leicestershire was highest in the city of Leicester, where there were 8.5 cases per 100,000 residents last year. Across the rest of Leicestershire, there are 7.0 cases per 100,000 – but this is about half the national average of 15.4.

An increase in the number of people having unsafe sex without a condom, as well as an increase in casual sex, is considered one of the reasons for the increase. You can see how Leicestershire compares to the rest of the country using our interactive map below.

Syphilis cases have fluctuated over the past 100 years, surging after the two world wars, but then declining in the late 1940s and 1950s due to effective treatment with penicillin, and the greater availability of condoms. It reappeared in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and after the contraceptive pill became more widely used but then declined in the 1980s when the spread of AIDS led to even more condom use.

But since the early 2000s, syphilis – along with gonorrhea – has re-emerged as a major public health problem. Back in 2012 there were 5.6 cases of syphilis for every 100,000 people but that figure hit 15.4 per 100,000 people last year – the biggest annual number since 1948.

Dr Hamish Mohammed, consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said: “Increased testing may have played a role in the increase in diagnoses but the scale of the increase strongly suggests that there is more transmission of this STI in the population. There is some evidence to suggest that this may be because more people are having unprotected sex with new or casual partners.”

UKHSA data show syphilis disproportionately affects gay men. Overall, 69 percent of cases diagnosed last year were in gay men. Syphilis is far more common in London than elsewhere in England, but is also a major problem in Brighton and Manchester.

The infection rate in the capital was 44.9 infections per 100,000 population but within the capital, Lambeth topped the charts with a staggering 143.3 infections per 100,000 population – nearly 10 times the UK average. Other London areas with high infection rates include Southwark and Westminster, while outside London Brighton, Salford, Middlesbrough and Manchester all have infection rates above 40 per 100,000 population.

Today syphilis is perfectly treatable but can be life threatening if left untreated – there have been 30 deaths caused by syphilis in the UK between 2013 and 2021. Symptoms include boils and growths of white or gray warts on the genitals or buttocks, sores in the genital area others, including lips, mouth, and hands, rashes, flu-like symptoms, swollen glands, and possible loss of hair on the head, beard, and eyebrows.

Syphilis was first documented in Europe 500 years ago during the French invasion of Naples in 1495. Because it was believed to have been spread by invading armies, it became known in parts of Europe – including England – as “French disease”.

It is estimated that up to five million people died across Europe during the plague, which left victims with bursting ulcers and rotting flesh. But while one theory holds that the disease was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus’ crew on their return from the New World, scientists have found signs that the bacterium that causes syphilis was present in Europe as early as the 12th century.

UKHSA says condoms are the best form of defense against sexually transmitted infections like syphilis. It urges anyone having unprotected sex with a new or casual partner to get tested, which is free, and accessible at sexual health clinics.

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