Experts urge summer safety as STIs rise, testing falls

Australians are being urged to be extra safe this summer amid a worrying surge in sexually transmissible infections.

Syphilis rates have tripled, gonorrhoea has doubled and chlamydia has risen 12 per cent in the last decade while testing has fallen, leaving experts concerned the trend is likely to get worse before it gets better.

STIs are more than just unpleasant, they can result in lifelong health impacts.

Experts are particularly alarmed by a six-fold increase in syphilis among women and while most cases are easily treatable with antibiotics, babies who contract the disease from their mother are vulnerable to lasting health issues or death.

"The key message we want Australians to take away from these data is that for any sexually active person, condoms remain highly effective at preventing STIs, and regular STI testing is crucial," epidemiologist Skye McGregor said.

"A key part of this is combating stigma around sexual health and notifying sexual partners when someone has tested positive for an STI. Early testing, diagnosis, and treatment of STIs prevents serious long-term outcomes."

Dr McGregor was lead researcher of a report released by the University of NSW's Kirby Institute on Tuesday.

It found there were 93,777 diagnoses of chlamydia, 32,877 diagnoses of gonorrhoea and 6036 diagnoses of infectious syphilis in 2022.

Testing for chlamydia and gonorrhoea declined between 2019 and 2022, likely due to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19.

Cases were especially prevalent among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Eight of 15 congenital syphilis cases in 2022 were among Indigenous Australians, making them 14 times more likely to contract the disease.

"All pregnant people should be tested for STIs as part of pre- and ante-natal health screening, but ante-natal care is not always accessible," Dr McGregor said. 

"It is vital that comprehensive services are in place to ensure appropriate care is accessible for all pregnant people."

Disparities in STI frequencies were particularly pronounced in regional and remote communities, said Robert Monaghan, a Bundjalung-Gumbaynggir man and manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research at the Kirby Institute.

"This highlights an urgent need for culturally appropriate health promotion, testing, and treatment strategies," he said. 

"It is crucial that these are co-designed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

The report uncovered some good news too, with genital warts all but eliminated due to the increased uptake of the HPV vaccine.

The proportion of non‑Indigenous females under 21 attending sexual health clinics with genital warts has decreased from 10.6 per cent in 2007 to 0.2 per cent in 2022.

Donovanosis, once a regularly diagnosed STI in remote Aboriginal communities, has likely been eliminated in Australia with no cases recorded since 2014.

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