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DECEMBER 2017 | Published by RCPA

Issue #076

Rise in STIs means we’re sharing more than Christmas cheer

Rise in STIs means we’re sharing more than Christmas cheer

It seems we’re spreading more than goodwill and cheer around Australia. The Kirby Institute’s Annual Surveillance Report 2017 shows gonorrhoea and syphilis diagnoses are increasing, yet these sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are not as benign or as treatable as some people might think.

We may live in an era where medical advances are conquering many diseases, but we are also staring down the barrel of an antibiotic resistant ‘superbug’ future. Gonorrhoea and syphilis are both bacterial infections treated with antibiotics. It’s a small step to join those dots together.

“There has already been a case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhoea in Australia,” explained Dr Angie Pinto, Microbiologist and Infectious Diseases Physician at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) and researcher at the Kirby Institute in Sydney.

“We also have a new generation who don’t appear to have the same fear of untreatable diseases. They seem to think if they contract something like an STI then it will be treatable and curable so they may accept the risk of infection. But this is not the case at all. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise and treatment options, for gonorrhoea especially, are becoming more limited.”

Dr Raymond Chan, Clinical Microbiologist at the RPAH, agrees. He said safe sex practices were in the spotlight during the terrifying ‘AIDS era’ of the 1980s. Now that this syndrome is deemed a chronic disease and not a death sentence, the impact of safe sex messages is not as strong.

“It’s still very important for people who engage in risky sexual behaviour to be tested for STIs and to practice safe sex,” he explained.

“The rising incidence of gonorrhoea and syphilis seems to show this isn’t happening as much as it should, although the data may also reflect increased testing and therefore increased numbers of positive test results. It is often difficult to tell what the real situation is.”

The data from the Kirby Institute’s report shows gonorrhoea notifications have increased by 63% over the past five years, with particular rises among young heterosexual people living in major cities. Notifications of infectious syphilis have increased by 107% over the past five years, mostly in young males living in all areas from remote places to major cities.

“Another factor to consider is the rise of social media and dating apps. These may be enabling behaviour or changing it, we’re not sure which. Travel is also a factor because people are often more likely to engage in riskier behaviour in another environment than at home,” explained Dr Pinto.

Conversations about the importance of both testing and prevention in terms of safe sex practices are essential. Whether it makes good Christmas party chatter over the roast turkey and pudding is another matter. But since prevention is better than cure, perhaps a few condoms and some statistics about rising STI rates slipped into appropriate Christmas bons bons could act as conversation starters. In the current climate they would be more useful for our young adults than a party hat, key ring and cheesy joke.

A bit more about gonorrhoea

  • Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmissible bacterial infection.
  • It has no symptoms in about 80% of women and 50% of men.
  • Untreated gonorrhoea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in females, and infertility in males and females.
  • It is diagnosed via a urine test or genital swab.
  • Treatment is with antibiotics.

A bit more about infectious syphilis

  • Infectious syphilis is a sexually transmissible bacterial infection of less than two years’ duration.
  • Infected pregnant women can pass the infection to their unborn baby.
  • Untreated infections may lead to serious complications that can involve the skin, bone, central nervous system and cardiovascular system.
  • It is diagnosed via a blood test.
  • Treatment is with antibiotics.
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