Worrying rise in sexually transmitted infections

Transmission rates of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis have reached their highest levels ever recorded in Australia.


Syphilis numbers on the rise.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

Transmission rates of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis have reached their highest levels ever recorded in Australia.

The University of New South Wales' Kirby Institute has released its Annual Surveillance Report, showing a disturbing rise in many sexually transmitted infections.

Abby Dinham has the story.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

The report says unprotected sex between men was the main driver of new syphilis diagnoses between 2009 and 2013.

The Victorian Aids Council's Colin Batrouney says unsafe sexual practices are a major concern.

"We are actually seeing an increase in what we call unprotected anal intercourse with casual partners, so that's basically people not using condoms when they have sort of casual sexual hook ups. In 2014 in Victoria, that sat at around 36 per cent of men."

Mr Batrouney says diseases like syphilis can also be passed on through oral sex.

The report shows over 1,700 people were diagnosed with the potentially deadly bacterial disease in Australia last year.

That represents a 34 per cent increase on the number documented in 2009.

Mr Batrouney says the solution to preventing the rise in infections needs to be twofold.

"We need to push the safe sex message more, and I think that we need to reiterate the importance of regular sexual health testing. And also for people to understand the symptoms of syphilis can be confused for other things."

He says a rash that comes and goes may be mistaken for a skin disorder when, in fact, it is a symptom of the disease.

One of the report's authors is Associate Professor David Wilson.

He says, while syphilis remains far less common than many other sexually transmitted diseases in Australia, the trend is concerning.

"There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the sexual lives of young people and what they're taught about at school. Obviously, we're reflecting data on condom usage. We're not seeing any increases. It's only decreasing."

The report also shows the number of hepatitis C deaths has more than doubled in the past decade.

It says over 10,000 people are diagnosed with the virus each year.

Around 630 Australians died from hepatitis C-related liver failure and liver cancer last year.

The report identifies Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations as being most at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

Jason Agostino, from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, says that is not a new development.

"We're constantly trying to increase the (number) of younger adults who we're testing for sexually transmitted infections, because, in most cases, if we pick up things early and treat it, we can prevent the spread, and we can also prevent further complications for the patient."

He says one of the biggest issues affecting the numbers of Indigenous people with sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, is simply access to remote health care.

"We're really trying to work really hard on that 15 to sort of 35 year old age group in getting them into clinics and getting them to have health checks and getting them to get tested for these STIs. So, we're constantly doing things to reach out to those men and get them involved in the clinic."

Gonorrhoea rates have also increased.

In 2013, there were almost 1,500 new diagnoses of the infection commonly called "the clap," an 81 per cent increase on the past five years.

However, in good news, the surveillance report says chlamydia rates have slightly declined for the first time in recent history, although it remains the most common STI.

The report also says cases of genital warts among women have dropped dramatically.

Associate Professor David Wilson says the introduction of the Human Papillomavirus vaccination program in 2007 is the reason for the decline.

"Among young girls who are attending sexual-health clinics, about 13 per cent of them had genital warts the first time that they came. These days, it's now about 1 per cent. That dramatic decline is completely attributable just to this HPV vaccine."





4 min read
Published 19 September 2014 at 8:44am
By Abby Dinham