Biggest syphilis outbreak in 30 years prompts screening call

brightly coloured condoms in packets

Queensland’s peak Aboriginal and Islander health body has called for changes to health screening and increased investment into sexual health in the face of Australia’s biggest reported syphilis outbreak in thirty years.

Sandy Gillies, General Manager, Policy Innovation and Service Development of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council, says the outbreak in remote Northern Australia, including over 500 cases in Queensland since the outbreak commenced in 2010, indicates a need for greater funds to deal with sexual health and greater allocation of research money to combat syphilis, other blood borne viruses and STIs.

“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector is not funded for specific sexual health/BBV programs, but our member services ensure that sexual health and BBVs are not overlooked,” says Gillies.

“However in light of these alarming new statistics it is clear that specific sexual health/BBV programs need to be established and funded by Governments. We need dedicated sexual health workers and sexual health/BBV programs in all members’ services.

“And given what we now know about the demographics of this outbreak we need some changes to the regime of health screening being regularly offered to our people,” says Gillies.

“Adult health checks need to include a mandatory sexual health screening for blood borne viruses including syphilis and HIV and importantly, given the reported deaths of three infants from congenital syphilis, where the infection is passed from a mother during pregnancy and/or birth onto the infant, all ante-natal patients should be encouraged to have a syphilis, HIV and STI screening. Young people 15 -24 also need to be screened regularly.

“In addition, there needs to be better engagement and involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the outbreak response, especially in areas where the outbreak is occurring and adjacent areas.”

Gillies says the recent formation of an Engaging Aboriginal Communities subgroup in a Multijurisdictional Syphilis Outbreak Committee is a good start to improving the response and he looked forward to QAIHC being able to facilitate engagement between medical authorities trying to limit the outbreak and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities affected.

“Overcoming this outbreak will require collaboration between our sector and Queensland Health and some additional resources,” says Gillies.

“The outbreak is a serious indictment on sexual health clinical care outcomes with the infectious syphilis notification rate in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population 300 times higher than the non-Indigenous population in remote areas during 2014.

“Only four years ago the Medical Journal of Australia was reporting the likelihood of syphilis being eliminated in remote Australia and yet today it is reported that we are undergoing the biggest outbreak in thirty years.

“This shouldn’t happen in one of the world’s richest countries and I remain very confident that if some simple steps are undertaken we can get back on top of this issue.”

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