Cases of syphilis are exploding across Melbourne’s outer suburbs with health officials worried a 220 per cent spike in infections of the sexually transmitted infection among women means an “epidemic is in place”.
New data compiled by the Department of Health showed the city’s outer western and southeastern suburbs were the worst hit with rising infections across Brimbank, Melton and Casey.
Epidemiologist associate professor Eric Chow said there had been a 45 per cent increase in notified syphilis cases.
They had increased from 950 cases in 2015 to 1375 cases in 2018, he said.
“The epidemic, which was once focused on gay men in inner Melbourne, has now become much more generalised and has spread to the outer suburbs,” he said.
While the number of syphilis infections among men in same-sex relationships continued to rise – a 21 per cent increase – cases among women spiked by 220 per cent and 129 per cent in heterosexual men.
Dr Chow said the increase in cases among heterosexual men and women was largely among people residing in outer Melbourne suburbs, areas that are considered to be socio-economically disadvantaged.
This previously wasn’t the case.
While most infections were recorded in the northwest and southeast, the largest number of cases in women was reported in Port Phillip.
“The major concern with the rise in syphilis among women of reproductive age is infection during pregnancy and congenital syphilis,” he said.
“We know syphilis can cause major complications during pregnancy and even result in the death of the child so we’re urging all women at high risk to get screened during their third trimester in addition to the universal screening during the first.”
Dr Chow said the re-emergence of syphilis among heterosexuals in Victoria meant prevention messaging should be targeted towards them, particularly those residing in the outer suburbs.
It comes after Alfred Health in January launched the Victorian Sexual Health Network – a network of bulk-billed GP sexual health clinics aimed at improving access to screening for people in the outer areas of Melbourne.
Syphilis starts with an appearance of sores or ulcers, before developing into a rash.
If untreated, it could eventually cause a brain infection, dementia and blindness.
It can be cured with penicillin, but people may not seek treatment because they do not realise they have been infected, as syphilis is often asymptomatic following signs of the initial infection.