As you may have heard in recent news, there is a concerning outbreak of syphilis impacting Melbourne’s suburbs right now.
According to the ABC, health professionals in the area have reported that there has been a “dramatic rise” in the sexually transmitted infection (STI) of late. Epidemiologist associate professor Eric Chow spoke with News.com.au on the situation, sharing that they’ve seen a 45 per cent increase in positive cases.
Update (30/8): The Department of Health is urging Victorians to get tested as cases of syphilis continue to appear. Health officials are particularly concerned that the disease cause issues for pregnant women.
But what is syphilis?
As we’ve covered, syphilis is a form of STI. Better Health Victoria shares that the infection is passed from person to person through skin-to-skin contact (most often through unprotected sex, of any variety). It is caused by a kind of bacterium known as Treponema pallidum.
Syphilis affects all genders and can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy or via the birthing process.
Though the infection can be treated (usually, penicillin is used), if left unaddressed, syphilis can result in serious complications. In the case of congenital syphilis (mother to child), untreated cases can cause pregnancy loss, and a whole host of health issues for the affected baby.
Are there common symptoms associated with the infection?
One of the more frustrating elements with this STI is that often, people present no symptoms (which is why regular STI tests are so incredibly important). However, there are some symptoms to look out for – according to Better Health Victoria, these may indicate what stage the infection is at.
The most common one is an ulcer on the genital area, anus or mouth. Often, this is painless and will heal up over the course of a month.
If not treated in the initial stages, you may go on to break out into a rash, see swollen lymph nodes, and experience flu-like symptoms such as joint pain. The final stage would be the serious health conditions impacting key organs.
Note that according to the CDC, syphilis can “invade the nervous system at any stage of infection”. Sometimes this can result in “headache, altered behaviour, difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, sensory deficits, and dementia”. There is also the risk that the infection will impact the eye structure, which is how ocular syphilis occurs.
Who should get tested?
First of all, if you’re sexually active you should be getting tested every year. That rule is a constant.
Specifically referencing the Victorian spike, this has been experienced by men who have sex with men, as well as women who are of reproductive age (15-49 years), Better Health states.
The website specifies that beyond the general annual check, the following groups should be seeking out regular tests for syphilis.
- Men who have sex with men, and have more than 1 partner – are checked every 3 to 6 months
- A man who has sex with another man (has 1 partner) – is checked once a year
- [During] pregnancy – syphilis testing is always done as part of routine antenatal screening. Women who at increased risk of syphilis should be tested multiple times during pregnancy and after their baby is born.
It’s also worth pointing out that if you have contracted syphilis before and have been treated, you are not protected from becoming infected again.
If you want more information, please speak with your doctor. And remember, condoms are the best way to protect yourself and others from infection.
This article has been updated with additional information.