• A portable testing kit for an on-the-spot syphilis testing. (AAP)Source: AAP
HIV rates are double in Indigenous population while a syphilis outbreak has spread across four states and territories since 2011.
Staff writers

6 Nov 2017 - 10:40 AM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2017 - 10:05 AM

There has been a resurgence of the STI syphilis, particularly among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in regional and remote areas of Northern Australia, a new study has found.

Meanwhile rates of gonorrhoea among young heterosexual men and women have soared while the numbers of new HIV cases have remained "stubbornly" stable over the last five years.

The latest surveillance report on Australia's sexual health, released by the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney on Monday, shows diagnoses of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) gonorrhoea have increased by 63 per cent since 2011.

It also confirms what NITV News reported last month when we broke the story on northern Australia's sexual health crisis of soaring syphilis rates that have seen five babies die from the disease while there has been a more recent increase in HIV notifications.

“Initiatives underway to address the syphilis resurgence include enhanced testing and treatment, and culturally appropriate health promotion campaigns,” said Associate Professor James Ward, head of Infectious Diseases Research, Aboriginal Health Infection and Immunity, South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.

“Comprehensive strategies are needed to reduce STIs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The Kirby Institute report released today shows there were 1013 new HIV diagnoses in 2016. This compares with 1027 in 2015 and 1084 in 2014.

Of the more than 1000 new cases, 46 were identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. This is more than double the rate in non-indigenous Australian- born people, says AFAO CEO Darryl O'Donnell.

Associate Professor Ward said that this disparity highlights the need for culturally relevant HIV prevention programs for Aboriginal people. “We need enhanced community education, targeted testing and treatment initiatives – including access to PrEP, and greater access to sterile needle and syringes, and drug dependence treatment for people who inject drugs.”

It was also revealed that Indigenous Australians in remote communities are dying from a little-known HIV- 
related virus and drastic action from the federal government is needed, according to an infectious diseases expert warns.

The human T cell Lymphotropic Virus (HTLV-1) attacks the immune system by infecting a type of white blood cell called a T-cell and can cause a type of leukaemia or inflammatory disease. 

Symptoms can include inflammation of the eyes and lungs, severe arthritis and dermatitis.

The Australasian HIV&Aids and Sexual Health Conference in Canberra was told on Monday that indigenous communities in central Australia have some of the highest rates of HTLV-1 in the world but most people with the infection don't even know they have it.

In some remote communities more than half the adult population have the virus, said Dr Lloyd Einsiedel at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute

"We urgently need to better understand the effect of this virus in indigenous communities and this must be done with indigenous guidance and leadership," Dr Einsiedel said.

The expert is calling for HTLV-1 to be added to the list of diseases that are preventable with safe sex and for a health literacy program to increase awareness of the virus.

STIs must be given priority, say researchers

Associate Professor Rebecca Guy, head of the Surveillance, Evaluation and Research Program at the Kirby Institute says reducing the rates of STIs among Australia's young adults must be a priority of national awareness campaigns.

Sexual health crisis: Syphilis epidemic rages as doctors sound alarm on rising HIV rates
EXCLUSIVE: Since 2011 a syphilis epidemic has swept across northern Australia, spreading across multiple states and hitting Indigenous communities hard. Figures obtained by NITV News show the rate of infections is rising fast. Now, stretched health services are warning a rise in HIV cases could be the next epidemic to hit the region.

"Up until recently, gonorrhoea had been uncommon in young heterosexual people living in major cities. Rising rates in this group highlight the need for initiatives to raise awareness among clinicians and young people about the importance of testing," said Prof Guy.

The surveillance data also shows a higher HIV notification rate among migrant heterosexual men.

"Although Australian governments have an official goal of ending HIV transmission, new notifications remained stubbornly stable in 2016 and increases among specific communities demonstrate the need to invest in programs to ensure nobody is left behind," Mr O'Donnell said.

There was some better news to come from the report, showing that between March and December last year, an estimated 30,434 people were cured of hepatitis C, while the number of hepatitis B diagnoses declined by 27 per cent over the past five years.

Experts say it's essential that people establish a relationship with their doctor so they feel comfortable to ask for a sexual health check-up.

"Regular sexual health testing is part of being sexually active," said Mr O'Donnell.

"We must make it easier for people to ask for a sexual health test and for doctors to offer it. There is no shame in it."

With AAP