It was just 10 years ago that doctors in Australia felt, with the help of national efforts, that they were getting rid of syphilis in the remote native communities. However, it appears the rate of sexually transmitted infections has increased in one territory and three states.
According to doctors, six babies died after contracting congenital syphilis in 2011. They also said, in this same time period, more than 2,100 indigenous Australians were diagnosed with the disease.
Health experts have called the increase a crisis, and the nation must get control over the problem now.
Most of the people suffering from syphilis are young Torres Strait and Aboriginal Islander people living in the country’s central and northern parts.
Indigenous health experts like associate professor James Ward is looking to end syphilis in areas where the problem is. However, Ward said, instead of controlling it, it became more out of control, going from one Queensland community to other places in the state such as South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Experts aren’t sure why the outbreak is occurring but suspect it’s the result of people moving in and out of the area. Ward said the problem is worse because authorities failed to respond in time. He said if syphilis has been hitting the young, heterosexual group of these areas, a national outcry would be happening. Ward said there was an opportunity for it to be brought under control, but poor public health response as led to this outbreak.
Syphilis is a bacteria that is transmitted through sexual contact such as vaginal, anal or oral sex. Symptoms of the disease include rashes, joint pain, headaches, and mouth and genital sores. Antibiotics can treat the disease, and untreated syphilis can cause other health problems by spreading to other organs such as the brain and heart. It can also lead to death.
Women who have syphilis and are pregnant could have a miscarriage or stillbirth. Babies who have congenital syphilis can have permanent disabilities like blindness or die.
The Australian government agrees that response to the problem was lax and it’s not acceptable. In 2016, Queensland officials, where half of the cases have been reported, agreed to fund $11 million towards getting control over the problem. Current officials blame the previous government administration for the problem, as it had cut funding to help curb the disease.
In 2017, Canberra had developed its own response plan to increase medical supplies to the remote regions. However, experts believe it’s a little too late for that with the disease already being seen in Townsville and Cairns.
Dr. Darren Russell, director of Cairns Sexual Health Service, said small communities allow doctors to contain the issue by following those who are infected. However, in cities, it’s harder to keep track of people coming and going, which is why the disease has been able to sustain itself for so long.
The government is using advertising campaigns and other means like testing kits to diagnose and treat patients. According to health officials, it’s the social stigma of having an STD that is slowing down the progress to regain control.
Aboriginal health worker Marion Norrie said it’s difficult to convince those suffering from the disease. Norrie, who works in northern Queensland, has helped children around 12 years of age to get treatment. She said the biggest problem is getting someone to come to the clinic after they’ve tested positive for the disease, even though the treatment is just a shot of penicillin.
Norrie said one girl adamantly refused to get out of the car, even meeting her at the car to get treatment, she refused to get the shot.
The cycle continues, she said.
Ward said it’s still too early to determine if the latest response is having an impact. He said the awareness campaigns might actually be making a difference as there have been no new congenital syphilis cases diagnosed.
Still, he said, there is a lot that must be done to get control over the situation. Ward said that’s going to be a huge task.
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Women who suffer from PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) are at a greater risk of also contracting HIV and syphilis. However, only a handful of adolescent females who are told they have PID in the country’s emergency departments get lab testing for syphilis and HIV.