Here's What Syphilis Actually Is

Here’s What Syphilis Actually Is

In what seems to be a very 2021 news story, a scourge of syphilis is on the loose. The sexually transmitted infection has spread with alarming speed through Melbourne and now, health officials are struggling to contain it. As reported by the Victorian Department of Health, there’s been a large spike in syphilis among Melbourne’s CBD and neighbouring areas, after data revealed the rate of syphilis has nearly doubled in four years. In 2015, there were just 950 cases per 100,000 people, a number that rose to 1,673 in 2019. 

Despite sounding like a plot line to emerge from Mean Girls, news of a syphilis outbreak is rather serious. The bacterial infection that’s typically spread by sexual contact often starts as a painless sore on your genitals, rectum or mouth. Spreading from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact with these sores, syphilis is a serious STI and though it can be cured with the right antibiotics and treatment, if ignored it can lead to serious health issues, affecting the heart, brain and other organs, and even passing from an infected mother to her unborn baby. 

Currently in Melbourne, the state has reported more than 1,400 confirmed cases of syphilis in the past 12 months, with over 570 cases reported in the past five months alone. The hotspot areas appear to be Melbourne’s CBD, Stonnington, Port Philip, and the Yarra regions.

If you’re sexually active, regular health checkups are essential, particularly as a number of STIs can often go undetected. In the case of syphilis, it can be hard to detect as it is painless and often manifests as the sore at first. As the Victorian Department of Health’s Better Health Channel advises, this stage can even last between four to 12 weeks, with the sore appearing three to four weeks after exposure and in areas where there has been sexual contact. It tends to heal within four weeks without any treatment, but this doesn’t mean you’re rid of syphilis, rather the visible symptoms are gone. 

The second stage of syphilis occurs when left untreated, and can lead to hair loss, a red skin rash,  joint pain, flu-like symptoms and swollen lymph nodes. If left untreated (for 10 to 30 years), it can progress to a harmful variation that targets parts of the brain, causing memory loss, tissue damage, and vision problems. Females are also at greater risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature labour. It’s a startling revelation, but also one that has alarmed health authorities as third stage symptoms like vision impairment have been on the rise in the last 13 years, jumping from just two in 2006 to 21 in 2019. 

Nine News reports that infection rates among women are particularly concerning, experiencing a significant surge. “There has been a 220 per cent spike in syphilis infections among women in recent years, an analysis by Alfred Health’s Melbourne Sexual Health Centre found. More than 170 infections have been found in women in the past year.”

As epidemiologist Eric Chow explained in an interview with Nine News, more sexual health clinics are needed in the affected areas in order to contain the spread of the STI and prevent the outbreak from spreading. Chow, who has been studying the state’s syphilis epidemic, told the news outlet, “Sexual health services need to be scaled up in those areas.”

He went on to add, “Public health messaging about how STIs are transmitted, also symptoms, awareness and recognition is important.”

If you’re sexually active, ensure you’re being safe and always wear protection. Regular testing for STIs is also essential, and seeing as it’s free and confidential, there’s no reason not to be doing it. For more information, click here. 

By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

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