Syphilis cases ‘emerging’ public health concern, Victorian health authorities warn

Anthony PiovesanNCA NewsWire
Not Supplied
Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: Supplied

Victorians are being urged to get tested for sexually transmitted infections as cases of syphilis – particularly in women – continue to increase across the state.

It comes as Victoria prepares to emerge out of a three-month lockdown, with health authorities worried the “emerging public health concern” will worsen as people start to socialise with each other.

Victoria’s Department of Health on Monday launched a campaign urging people to get tested for STIs, ahead of the state’s “freedom Friday”.

The department said congenital syphilis – where a baby was born with infectious syphilis – was an emerging public health threat.

Cases have increased over the past two years in Victoria, including two foetal deaths – syphilis an also cause miscarriage and serious birth abnormalities in the baby, including stillbirth.

Syphilis starts with an appearance of sores or ulcers, before developing into a rash.
Camera IconSyphilis starts with an appearance of sores or ulcers, before developing into a rash. Credit: Supplied

Date compiled by the Department of Health and obtained by NCA NewsWire in August showed there had been 76 cases of the sexually transmitted infection in the northwest regional Victorian city of Mildura since January 17.

Of those cases, 50 per cent were in women, while across the rest of the state women accounted for 11 per cent of infectious syphilis cases.

It sparked health authorities to launch a testing campaign then, targeting residents in Mildura – particularly women.

The Department’s latest testing campaign will run from October 17-23, where Victorians are being urged to talk to their GP, nurse or health worker about getting a sexual health test.

Department of Health executive director of public health Maria Bubnic said anyone having sex should get a regular sexual health test every 12 months, or earlier if they were planning for a baby.

“Sexual health testing decreased last year during lockdowns, and again this year. This means people may have an undiagnosed STI and potentially be at risk of passing an STI onto a partner,” she said.

“That is why it is so important that when restrictions ease, and freedoms return, that people talk to their GP about a sexual health test.”

Department of Health figures also showed there had been 12 cases of congenital syphilis in Victoria since 2017. Prior to that there were just two cases in the previous 20 years.

If untreated, syphilis could eventually cause a brain infection, dementia and blindness.
Camera IconIf untreated, syphilis could eventually cause a brain infection, dementia and blindness. Credit: Supplied

An analysis by Alfred Health’s Melbourne Sexual Health Centre released in May showed a 220 per cent spike in infections among females in recent years.

Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital doctors were also reporting a 20-fold increase in people presenting with syphilis-related eye infections.

Despite months of coronavirus lockdown in Victoria, the state still recorded 1453 cases of syphilis last year.

Syphilis cases have risen from 636 cases in 2014 to 1659 cases in 2019.

“It is estimated that around one in every six people will get an STI in their life – and most won’t even know it. That’s why getting regular sexual health tests is so important,” Ms Bubnic said.

“There are many types of STIs, most are curable and all are treatable.

“If left untreated, STIs can cause long term effects on the body, including infertility.”

STIs can include HIV, gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia and bloodborne viruses such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Confidential sexual health testing is available from local doctors, community health services, Aboriginal community Controlled Health Organisations, family planning and specialist sexual health clinics.

Originally published as Syphilis cases ‘emerging’ public health concern, Victorian health authorities warn

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