Women told to get tested after syphilis spike sees baby die in womb

The syphilis bacteria under a microscope.
The syphilis bacteria under a microscope.  Photo: Supplied

All Victorian women of reproductive age are being advised to get tested for syphilis after a baby died in the womb when it contracted the disease from its mother.

It is the first fatal case of congenital syphilis recorded in the state in 14 years, and comes amid a resurgence of the dangerous sexually transmitted infection which has seen cases jump 40 per cent since 2015.

The outbreak, which last year affected a record 1337 Victorians, has mostly infected gay men. Nationwide, the disease has struck Aboriginal communities in Australia’s far north and South Australia, also causing baby deaths.

A growing number of women in Victoria have become infected (health authorities detected 146 in 2017), putting any unborn children they might have at risk of serious birth defects or death.

Last year was the first time since 2004 that cases of congenital syphilis were notified in Victoria. There were two cases – one was fatal.

Syphilis, which first appeared in the 15th century, is a notorious disease that begins with an appearance of sores or ulcers, then develops into a rash, and if untreated can eventually cause a brain infection and dementia.

It can be cured with penicillin, but people may not seek treatment because they do not realise they have been infected, as syphilis can be asymptomatic following signs of the initial infection.

A large-scale screening program has now been recommended by Victoria’s deputy chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton, who issued an alert on Thursday afternoon.

All men who have sex with men should be tested at least annually, and more often if they are having unprotected sex, participate in group sex or have many sexual partners, according to health authorities.

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All women of reproductive age should also be screened, including all pregnant women during their first antenatal visit, as should sex workers, travellers returning from countries where syphilis is more prevalent, people who inject drugs and those who have multiple sexual partners.

Dr Sutton said most of this screening advice had already been in place, albeit not necessarily followed. The new advice is for additional tests for some women throughout their pregnancy.

It is theorised that the growing spread of syphilis could be partly linked to social media, and online dating apps, providing more opportunities for people to hook up.

“Maybe there are dynamics around casual sex that are different than 20 years ago, where young people probably had to go through greater efforts to meet numbers of partners,” Dr Sutton said.

Another factor that could be at play is the advent of new treatments and preventions for HIV.

“That’s a very good news story, but it also means some of the fear of unprotected sex with men who have sex with men is diminished,” Dr Sutton said.

“We’ve seen an associated drop in regular condom use in that high-risk population in the last few years.”

Using a condom can help prevent the spread of the infection, which can be transmitted by vaginal, anal and oral sex.

It comes as gonorrhoea, once dubbed “the clap”, also makes a comeback in Victoria, causing painful urination and abnormal discharge from the penis or vagina.

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