As COVID-19 restrictions ease, health professionals are urging teenagers and young adults to be mindful about the current infectious outbreak in Western Australia.
What infection, you ask? Syphilis.
Manager of Sexual Health and Blood-borne Virus Applied Research and Evaluation Network Dr Daniel Vujcichsays syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection.
“It’s usually spread through direct contact with a syphilitic sore, also known as a chancre,” he says.
In 2013, Perth had almost no syphilis cases but each year since case numbers have been reaching the hundreds.
Dr Vujcich says in 2014, WA saw a rise in syphilis cases and, from there, the curve has risen dramatically.
“We are at the stage where we are getting over 70 notifications every three months,” he says.
The outbreak of syphilis in WA was first identified in the Kimberley region in mid-2014 and has slowly been moving further south through the state ever since then.
Prior to borders opening in 2021, there were more cases of syphilis diagnosed in Perth than COVID-19, according to North Metropolitan Health Services.
Dr Vujcich says there are a few factors responsible including doctors not checking for STI’s as frequently as they used to.
Syphilis health promotion and education officer at Sexual Health Quarters Rachael Laing says with most STIs, people often experience no symptoms and can easily pass them on to others without knowing they even have it.
“Given this and the cuts to sexual health funding at the time syphilis began to spread around Australia,” she says.
Health professionals want young Australians to know that syphilis doesn’t discriminate.
“We see it in people of all genders, we see it in people of all ethnicities … we see it in people who identify as straight and people who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Dr Vujcich says.
Ms Laing says using barrier methods such as condoms and having routine testing are the best ways to prevent syphilis.
“It is recommended that everyone have a full STI screen, including a syphilis test, at least once every 12 months.”
She says teens and young adults can avoid syphilis by better educating themselves about the infection.
Ms Laing welcomes people to make an appointment at Sexual Health Quarters in Northbridge.
“Ask our nurses and doctors about it. Many of our services are low cost or no cost for under 25s, and we also have a specific youth clinic that runs on Tuesday nights for those aged 12-19,” she says.
Although clinics such as SHQ are spreading awareness in Perth, there is still stigma around syphilis.
“Working in sexual health, we hear a lot of stigmatic language when it comes to STIs,” Ms Laing says.
“These taboos can be broken down by people being given the opportunity to talk and learn in safe spaces, and through open communication with loved ones and sexual partners.
“Sexually transmitted infections are just infections. Getting infections is just a part of life, it happens to us all – if you have ever had a cold, flu, had to take antibiotics, you have had a bacterial or viral infection.
“Your value as a human is not reduced or damaged by having an STI.”