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Syphilis outbreak the worst in 30 years

The worst Syphilis outbreak in 30 years is how the Kirby Institute's Professor Basil Donovan describes the latest national surveillance report on infectious syphilis. But as that was said some months ago it may already be out of date.

Ironically, perhaps, nationally the total number of syphilis cases has been in decline, but not so in Northern Australia. Starting with a large outbreak amongst very young people in the Gulf country in Queensland in 2011, it moved into the Katherine area of the Northern Territory and has now swept across the Kimberley.
According to the Kirby Institute, 2014 saw 2,000 new cases, and by October 2015 there were a further 1,972. The only other group affected outside of Northern Australia are urban gay communities including Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

The northern outbreak crossed the NT border into WA in the middle of last year and health authorities are scrambling to contain its spread. Katy Crawford, a sexual health nurse based in Broome says that for the two years to June 2014, the region had been free of syphilis, but since then more than 40 people had been infected and diagnosed. Worryingly, there are likely many more who are infected without realising it.

The consequences of untreated syphilis are very serious, and the consequences for pregnant women frequently disastrous. It can lead to loss of pregnancy, still-births and births of very disabled babies. Professor Donovan says that 10 babies had died of congenital syphilis since the outbreak began.

The WA Health Department is working with Aboriginal health organisations to increase awareness in local communities. The STI Coordinator for Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, Amanda Sibosado, is travelling extensively through the region speaking with young people, but she says it is difficult getting the word out to remote towns and bush communities. Amanda wants as many people as possible to get down to a clinic and get a check and if necessary treated. But she also wants people to spread the word to their families, young people, nieces and nephews. Amanda wants people to recognise that there is an outbreak and there is no shame in having a check.

There is an evolving picture in the Perth Metropolitan region, with the number of new syphilis cases increasing steadily over the last 12 months. M Clinic has seen a rise amongst its gay and other homosexually active men in this time. Clinic Coordinator, Justin Manuel says that although the numbers are still relatively small, that there is an increase is beyond dispute. The nature of sexual networks amongst this community is one that is prone to outbreaks of STIs including syphilis, so regular sexual health screening has been and remains an important message.

It is not clear what, if any, relationship exists between the Perth Metro and the Northern Australian outbreaks.

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