Young women among sufferers, as Japan records huge spike in syphilis cases

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 10:37am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 9:04pm

Japan has a rapidly increasingly number of syphilis patients, including among young women, prompting the health ministry to launch a special research team to find out ways to stop the spread of the sexually transmitted infection.

According to data based on reports filed by hospitals across Japan, the number of syphilis patients totaled 4,259 as of early December, up 77 per cent from 2,412 in the corresponding period a year earlier, and more than seven-fold from a decade ago.

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The infection is believed to have spread mainly through heterosexual intercourse. But the number of mother-to-child transmissions, which has been very rare in Japan, is also on the rise.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has been urging people who feel they may have been infected to be tested immediately as the disease can be transmitted despite the absence of symptoms.

Factors such as changes in sexual behaviour among youth and adult entertainment businesses, as well as an increase in the number of tourists from countries with high infection rates of the disease are often cited as likely causes behind the spread, but it remains unclear why it has been so rapid over the past decade.

Currently, doctors ask syphilis patients if they had a sexual experience with the same or opposite sex, or engaged in oral sex, to file reports in accordance with laws on infectious diseases. The reports require the patients’ age and gender but not specific information such as the sufferer’s nationality or occupation.

Infections are especially rife in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward where numerous entertainment and nightlife businesses operate, with the number of syphilis patients reported by hospitals in the ward accounting for 40 per cent of Tokyo’s total, and 20 per cent of cases across the whole of Japan.

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Shinjuku Ward’s health care centre is encouraging hospitals in the ward to ask patients if they had engaged in work at adult entertainment businesses and their nationality from this fiscal year to find out major infection routes.

The research team launched by the health ministry plans to verify how the spread of the infection took place, especially cases through heterosexual intercourse, by the end of March next year by cooperating with hospitals with high infection rates of the disease in Tokyo.

Makoto Onishi, a section chief specialised in bacteria at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, who heads the research team, said, “We intend to clarify which groups of people are at most risk and stop the spread of the infection by educating about how to prevent and cure the disease.”

The primary stage of the disease presents only minor tumours in affected areas, such as genitals, but symptoms often disappear naturally. In the secondary phase that occurs around three months later, patients suffer rashes, frequently involving the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, but the symptoms often disappear again.

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But if they continue to undergo no medical treatment, the infection could bring inflammation across their body around three years later, possibly causing damage to their brain and heart eventually.

“Condom use is effective in preventing the disease but it’s not enough. Everyone is at risk unless they have specific uninfected partners,” said Kunio Kitamura, an obstetrician and gynecologist who serves as the chief of the Japan Family Planning Association.

“Doctors should encourage patients with suspected infection to be tested more aggressively,” said Kitamura.

The disease can also be transmitted through oral sex, causing sores in the mouth, he said.