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STIs and Hep C levels at all-time high in Australia

STIs and Hep C levels at all-time high in Australia

LAST UPDATED // Sunday, 03 May 2015 23:15 Written by // James Findlay

The results of the Kirby Institute’s Annual Surveillance Report, have revealed syphilis levels around Australia are at an all time high. The report suggests a number of STIs are continuing to increase, with syphilis and gonorrhoea leading the charge.

Research indicates an increase in unsafe sex practices may be driving the rise in diagnoses, particularly amongst men who have sex with men (MSM).

Associate Professor David Wilson from the Kirby Institute said gonorrhoea has increased by 81 per cent since 2009 and that syphilis notifications have increased by over 30 per cent in the same period.

The data from the Kirby Institute also found that Hepatitis C infections are a growing health issue with more people now dying from viral hepatitis infection than from HIV when it was in its peak in the 80s and 90s. It is expected many more will succumb to the infection in the future.

The increase in STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhoea has caused some concerns, with Wilson saying a decade ago syphilis was almost eradicated in Australia. Kirby Institute researchers were also concerned the incidents of syphilis may be even higher. Syphilis is difficult to diagnose if patients don’t get regular sexual health checks and if left untreated can cause serious problems to many organs.

Dr David Wilson from the Kirby Institute said 10 years ago syphilis was an “old and rare disease”.

“And it still is in the greater population. But it really has surged among gay men particularly those with HIV, which is a very large concern.”

Social Researcher at UNSW, Professor John de Wit, said there had also been a gradual increase in non-condom use in gay men who have casual partners in both HIV negative and positive men, as well as reporting a “rather substantial increase of condomless sex among HIV positive men”.

“These men protect themselves and their partners against HIV in other ways, such as around disclosure and viral load, which are quite effective in preventing HIV transmission, but they are not effective in preventing all STI transmission,” de Wit explained.

“We have treatment now for HIV which means it’s not a death sentence, but still something [gay men] would want to avoid, and at the same time, they don’t think it’s going to happen to them.”

Professor de Wit said a stronger message around regular testing and condom use needed to be sent to men who had sex with men as HIV transmission is  still a serious issue and more needed to be done to stress the importance of condom use to avoid contracting other STIs.

“There’s a lot of excitement around HIV treatment to reduce the likelihood of onward transmission, but one of the drawbacks of that is that treatment of HIV only works against HIV, it doesn’t work against other STIs.

“This is where we’re going through a challenging period in terms of prevention of STIs in relation to gay men,” he said.

The new data from the UNSW’s Kirby Institute also found more people are dying from viral hepatitis infections than ever before, with around 1000 people having succumbed to the disease in the past twelve months.

“Hepatitis isn’t very well known about in Australia, but there’s been a large epidemic that is catching up with us now,” said Dr David Wilson from the Kirby Institute.

There are over 200,000 Australians living with hepatitis B, and about 310,000 that have been exposed to hepatitis C. Of those with hepatitis C, 80,000 had liver disease and 630 died due to hep C last year.

Dr Wilson said there needs to be an increase in treatment uptake to combat the morbidity and mortality caused by hepatitis C.

“There have been some major scientific breakthroughs for hep C treatment, so we need to make them available and cost effective for the Government to spend.

He added that Australia needs proper infrastructure to diagnose and increase accessibility to hepatitis C treatment in order for the treatment to have maximum effect on the population.

“There are many people who are aware of their status, but have not done anything about it,” Wilson said.

Currently there are treatments available for hepatitis C, however of the hundreds of thousands living with it, there are only 3000 people receiving the treatment.

Further research showed that young people are at substantial risk of contracting hepatitis C, with  high risk groups having only moderate knowledge of risk factors for acquiring the virus..

Currently there is an effective vaccine for hepatitis B, but no vaccine for hepatitis C.

In better news, chlamydia infections were on the decline for the first time in recent history, although it is still remains the most commonly recorded STI.

HPV has also declined dramatically in people under 21-years-of-age, thanks to the roll out of the HPV vaccine, which has seen a decrease of 15% to 1% of people present with genital warts.



James Findlay

James Findlay

James Findlay is a Melbourne-based journalist and broadcaster who has worked in community media for many years. He has won awards for his work on The Naughty Rude Show on SYN, and can be heard on JOY 94.9's breakfast program, Triple Threat, and Hide and Seek - exploring sex, sexuality and self. He is currently completing his Master of Public Health specialising in Sexual Health at Melbourne University, and a tutor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University.

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