Rates of STIs are spiking in Australia – these are the age groups most at risk, and how to keep yourself safe.
The latest data from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) shows a 45 per cent increase in gonorrhoea and a 24 per cent increase in confirmed cases of chlamydia.
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To show the scale of the outbreak, there have been 82,559 chlamydia cases reported in 2023 compared to 66,814 cases in 2021. Similarly, so far there have been 30,112 confirmed cases of gonorrhoea in 2023 compared to 20,699 in 2021.
According to the pathology reports, young people in the 15 to 29 age bracket make up the majority of these numbers, with 67 per cent of all chlamydia infections and 50 per cent of gonorrhoea infections.
However, recent data from Stigma Health shows older Australians are also contracting STIs at a higher rate than usual, particularly those in the 60 to 70 group, with many even “pushing 80”.
According to Pathology Awareness Australia ambassador and microbiologist Associate Professor Caitlin Keighley, the diseases are „highly transmissible and have long-term ramifications, making them of high public health importance.“
“If left undiagnosed, both can have long-term negative health consequences, such as infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease.”
When symptomatic, chlamydia and gonorrhoea pain or burning during urination, an abnormal discharge from the penis, vagina, or anus, swelling in the testicles or scrotum, vaginal bleeding, rectal pain or bleeding from the rectum.
What many people don’t know is that while chlamydia and gonorrhoea are mostly commonly known as genital infections, both diseases, along with many others, can affect other parts of the body too, including “the mouth, lips, throat, tongue and eyes, or other parts of the body including the groin, thighs and buttocks,” explains GP Dr Neel Patel.
“For example, if semen were to accidentally get into the eyes, you could contract chlamydia in the eye, resulting in symptoms similar to conjunctivitis.”
“Generally, we think of STIs affecting the genitals, but it’s possible for STIs to enter through either the skin or mucous membranes and infect other parts of the body. These are known as non-genital STIs.”
While both infections can be treated with antibiotics if they’re known to the individual, chlamydia and gonorrhoea can often be asymptomatic, which is of concern to doctors and pathologists, as without regular testing many people will not know they have been infected.
Both diseases can result in infertility if untreated, which leaves the infected person at risk. Plus, it also increases the risk of transmission to others, as they won’t know they are infectious.
Lisa Harrison, director of Nursing and Health Services and nurse practitioner for True said, “This rise in numbers is of great concern. STIs are contagious and spread quickly and easily. More work is needed to highlight this danger to the whole community in the form of health promotion and information across all clinical facilities.”
Keighley agrees, saying “To stem the spread of these infections, sexual health education needs to be prioritised in schools, healthcare settings, and community programs.
“By promoting safe sex practices, regular testing, and raising awareness about the risks associated with STIs, we can proactively prevent further transmission in the future.”
The best way to avoid contracting an STI is to use condoms every time you have sex. Sexually active people should get a full STI screen between each sexual partner, and every six to 12 months, including those in monogamous relationships.