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Whether you are young or old, you could be at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) with each new intimate relationship. Recent national health research shows 16 per cent of Australians will have an STI in their lifetime. Seeking medical help can be difficult for people who come from communities where sex isn’t openly discussed. So how do you avoid getting an STI?
Amy Chien-Yu Wang

6 Apr 2017 - 5:23 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 5:49 PM

The most common type of STI in Australia is chlamydia, which mostly affects young people.

Medical director of Family Planning New South Wales Dr Deborah Bateson explains.

“So most chlamydia is what we call simple chlamydia. It’s easily treated with a single dose of antibiotics. It never develops into what we call a pelvic inflammatory disease but if a woman does develop pelvic inflammatory disease, so that’s quite a serious condition and if not  treated, then it could go on to form infertility, it could go on to develop chronic pain.”

Three-quarters of chlamydia cases remain undiagnosed as often people show no symptoms.

Dr Bateson says there are signs to look out for.

“Women sometimes for instance, can get bleeding in between their periods, or in particular, bleeding after intercourse. They could have a vaginal discharge or they could have pelvic pain. Men, if they did have symptoms, mostly they don't, they could get pain on urination, for instance, or again, pain around the testes. So other type of pain as well, again, a discharge of course, from the end of the penis - so that could be one of the symptoms of chlamydia or other types of STIs like gonorrhea, for instance.”

Adele Murdolo runs the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health led by and for women from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. She says international students are at a higher risk of contracting STIs.   

“So they are coming to Australia at a time as perhaps they’re meeting new people and wanting to have sexual relationships with them. However, if they haven’t had access to sex education in their country of origin, and we found that is the case for large groups of people, who are coming as students, then they could go into sexual relationships without the information they need to protect themselves.”

Alison Coelho heads the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health in Victoria.

Cultural pressures can sometimes cause sexual health problems in younger people of multicultural backgrounds.

“There’s issues around virginity, so for instance, if there’s cultural pressure for you to be virgin when you get married, often young people will have anal sex to protect their virginity. This also puts a lot more physical stress and much more risk of contracting STIs.”

The Kirby Institute’s Annual Surveillance Report shows that just over 25 thousand people were living with H-I-V in Australia at the end of 2015. 68 per cent of all diagnoses made that year were among gay and bisexual men.

However, Alison Coelho says a perception that Australia has a world-class health system may mean young same-sex attracted men are less vigilant about HIV prevention.

“We know that young men who are trying to break into the mainstream gay scene, if they have decided to come out, are particularly vulnerable to racism, and exposure to things like HIV because they are told that those things don't exist.”

People can be infected with HIV without showing any symptoms for ten years or more. Whilst recorded cases of AIDS have declined rapidly since the introduction of effective antiretroviral therapies in 1994, people should still protect themselves during intercourse.

“Some people will get a sort of flu like illness but many people won’t know they've contracted the virus.”

The last Australian Study of Health and Relationships shows people in their 60s are having regular sex. Chlamydia cases in this group has risen by 190 per cent in the last decade, according to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. Alison Coelho says STI cases are rising in aged care facilities.

STIs also affect older Australians.

“We do know that when partners split up, say the kids have grown up, and they've split up, that is absolutely a risk time for older middle aged people. We’re also seeing STIs in aged care facilities as well. I think, again, the assumption that people don't have sex, and they’re not providing them with the right information, and you know, technology to protect themselves like condoms, is a really big disadvantage.”

Hepatitis B is another disease which affects people born overseas. It’s commonly infected via unprotected sex or intravenous drug injection.

Alison Coelho encourages people from post-war communities to get tested for Hepatitis B or get vaccinated.

“In Australia, when adults contract it, it’s usually men who have sex with men. However, with our communities that we work with, they contract it, usually, through vertical transmission, which is from the mother to child at the time of birth.”

Adele Murdolo from the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health says language barriers can prevent people from seeking medical help.

“Sometimes, there isn’t always the possibility of getting an interpreter, who is both…If it's a small community, in particular, who speaks the language adequately, and who is also a woman. So that is particularly an issue in rural areas and in areas of Australia that are much smaller.”

Dr Bateson suggests booking an interpreter in advance if possible.

“When you do ring up to make an appointment, whether that's with your GP, or whether that's with a specialised service such as a sexual health clinic, or family planning clinic, you need to let the reception staff know that you need an interpreter and that you will need a longer consultation - that's very important.”

Medical director of Family Planning New South Wales Dr Deborah Bateson recommends annual screenings for anyone who is sexually active or has recently had unprotected sex with a new partner.

“If you have a regular GP, you can see them for STI screening. We know that sometimes, people prefer to separate that bit of their lives sometimes, because they feel it is quite sensitive, and they’d rather go somewhere a bit anonymous such as a family planning clinic, such as sexual health clinic. If you’ve had any concerns around discharge, or pain, or genitals pain in the pelvis, we’d get you to come along.”

She says it’s important to remember that sometimes STIs don’t show any symptoms.

“So people can have chlamydia, for instance, without them knowing it themselves, and that's how STIs spread in the communities. So that's why we talk about the importance of condoms because you can’t tell by looking at somebody whether they could have an STI.”

If you think you may have a sexually transmitted infection, visit your GP, local family planning clinic or sexual health centre.

For more information, visit the Healthdirect website. Telephone and on-site translation services can be accessed via the Australian Government’s Translation and Interpreting Service. The 24/7 immediate interpreting hotline is 131 450. The clinic you visit can book an on-site interpreter to attend an appointment with you if needed.

Settlement Guide: How to prevent sexually transmitted infections?
No one is immune from sexually transmitted infections and yet, for many migrant communities in Australia, discussing sexual health and safety is still sometimes considered taboo. Looking after your sexual health is as important as any other aspect of your health. From the SBS Settlement Guide, here are some tips for staying safe.