Health officials plan to tackle an outbreak of syphilis that has led to the death of six Kiwi babies by running more "awareness" and education campaigns.

With reported syphilis cases surging more than 500 per cent in five years, the Ministry of Health now plans to launch campaigns at schools and on social media reminding young Kiwis to use condoms.

It is also set to introduce new guidelines for midwives after the epidemic led to the deaths of six babies due to the sexually transmitted infection being passed on from their mother's during pregnancy.

The deaths of these babies - from what is known as congenital syphilis - had been especially alarming, deputy director of public health Dr Niki Stefanogiannis said.

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"Congenital syphilis doesn't belong in New Zealand. The numbers are too high, and it's really important we do as much as we can now," she said.

The action plan comes as there were 543 cases of reported syphilis - 454 in males and 89 in females - last year.

That compared to 480 cases in 2017, 322 in 2016 and just 82 six years ago.

Syphilis, a sexually transmitted bacterial infection thought to be of a bygone era, is on the rise in New Zealand, but is easily treated with penicillin. Photo / Mike Scott
Syphilis, a sexually transmitted bacterial infection thought to be of a bygone era, is on the rise in New Zealand, but is easily treated with penicillin. Photo / Mike Scott

The groups most affected by syphilis are men who have sex with men (approximately 70 per cent of all cases), Asian and Māori men, and Māori women.

However, syphilis can be treated and cured with early intervention and antibiotics.

Dr Jane Morgan, clinical director of Waikato DHB's Hamilton Sexual Health, has long campaigned for greater action to tackle syphilis.

While she said she hadn't yet had time to fully examine the Ministry of Health action plan, she was "delighted" steps were been taken to combat the epidemic.

Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted bacterial infection that spread among medieval armies and was blamed for monarchs' madness.

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The disease afflicted as many as one in 10 Londoners by the start of the 20th century, but was largely eradicated in developed countries after the discovery of penicillin.

However, it is now back; its resurgence in the Western world turbo-charged by dating apps, international travel, poverty, and health services unprepared for an epidemic most thought consigned to medical history.

In 2016 that produced the "train wreck" sexual health clinicians have long warned of - a stillbirth caused by syphilis passed on from the mother.

It proved no outlier; in the following two years there were nine mother-to-child infections, five of which caused stillbirths (some remain under investigation).

Dr Jane Morgan of the Hamilton sexual health clinic says congenital syphilis is highly preventable. Photo / Mike Scott
Dr Jane Morgan of the Hamilton sexual health clinic says congenital syphilis is highly preventable. Photo / Mike Scott

The youngest woman to lose a child was a 16-year-old, who suffered a stillbirth at 27 weeks' gestation.

There are already another three suspected "live birth" cases this year.

The toll is probably greater, because deaths are only recorded if they happen after 20 weeks' gestation. Earlier miscarriages are likely to have been caused by syphilis, but don't show in official statistics.

Ministry of Health syphilis action plan

• Raise awareness on social media and through schools to promote condom use and regular sexually transmitted infection testing.

• Improve education on syphilis for healthcare workers, including "lead maternity carers".

• Prevent congenital syphilis, including developing new guidelines for checking for syphilis during pregnancy and new educational resources for midwives.

• Health officials to work with local communities to increase awareness of STIs among high-risk populations.

• Health officials to work with the Department of Corrections to include syphilis and other STI screening in prison health checks.

• Produce a new podcast about syphilis and new material about screening and STIs for healthcare workers.

• Introduce a service that texts reminders to people to take STI checks.

• Provide STI screening in emergency departments.