Notifications of infectious syphilis have greatly increased since 2011. This is largely due to an ongoing outbreak in northern, central, western and southern Australia. This outbreak affects mainly young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 34 years.
Infections in other areas, including major cities, have also contributed to the increase.
While syphilis occurs in both men and women, infections in women of reproductive age have flow-on effects, including a higher risk of congenital syphilis, and pregnancy and birth complications.
We are responding to the syphilis outbreak at a national level. This is part of our work to tackle communicable diseases, including other sexually transmissible infections (STI) and bloodborne viruses (BBV).
The Fourth National STI Strategy 2018–2022 provides the guiding principles, goals, targets, priority areas and priority populations for our national approach to addressing STI.
Its key priorities are to:
- implement education and prevention activities
- increase testing, early treatment and management
- ensure people have to prevention programs and coordinated care
- increase workforce capability
- improve data collection and surveillance
- address stigma and discrimination.
Together with the National STI Strategy, the National strategic approach for responding to rising rates of syphilis in Australia 2021 guides our national response. Its 3 national targets are to:
- reduce the incidence of syphilis, with a focus on women of reproductive age
- eliminate congenital syphilis
- control outbreaks among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.
The National syphilis surveillance and monitoring plan provides indicators to monitor our progress towards achieving the 3 targets.
We report on progress through quarterly syphilis surveillance reports.
Addressing syphilis in Indigenous communities
We are addressing the high rates of STI and BBV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the:
- National strategic approach for an enhanced response to the disproportionately high rates of STI and BBV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
- Action plan – Enhanced response to addressing STI (and BBV) in Indigenous populations.
The Communicable Diseases Network Australia and Blood Borne Viruses and Sexually Transmissible Infections Standing Committee developed these strategies and plans.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee endorsed them.
We provide national guidelines for:
- screening and testing individuals and communities, particularly young sexually active people aged less than 29 years
- immediately treating people who have symptoms, have tested positive, or are sexual contacts of cases
- screening pregnant women, especially those with a higher risk
- following up cases after treatment.
Workforce and education activities
We provided funding to:
- increase the health workforce and testing and treatment in Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in affected regions
- increase community awareness of syphilis and other STI and BBV through education activities.
Education activities include:
- the Young Deadly Free website
- the Don’t fool around with syphilis campaign
- television and radio advertising
- community group engagement
- social media posts.
Who we work with
To reduce the incidence of syphilis in Australia, we are working with:
- state and territory governments
- the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine
- the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.
Two working groups, no longer active, helped to coordinate the public health response. These were the:
- Multi-jurisdictional Syphilis Outbreak Working Group
- Syphilis Enhanced Response Governance Group.
- Syphilis Story in Yolgnu Matha
- Sexual health services
- Sexual health fact sheets
- Viral infection fact sheets
- Sexual Health and Blood Borne Virus Unit
- Congenital syphilis guidelines for the Northern Territory
- Sexual health advice
- Communicable Disease Control Guidance and Queensland Syphilis Surveillance Service
- Research, surveillance and resources for sexual health