Rising rates of chlamydia have prompted NSW Health to embark on a new campaign encouraging the community to get tested for the sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI in the country, with over 36,000 Australians testing positive to it in 2004, marking an increase of 300 percent over five years.
Inner-city gay men are affected at a higher rate than heterosexuals. The 2005 Health In Men study of 1,400 Sydney gay men found six percent were carrying the infection.
It is an epidemic, Professor Basil Donovan, of the Sydney Sexual Health Centre and the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, said.
It’s happening all throughout the western world and we’re not really sure what’s pushing it.
In gay men chlamydia is most commonly transmitted during unprotected anal sex but it can also be caught through oral sex. As the infection is usually asymptomatic, people are often unaware they have it.
It can remain in the body for years before it’s transmitted to someone else, according to Donovan.
Because it’s such a chronic infection we think it hangs around in the anal canal for years and years, so it may take a long time within a relationship to be transmitted, he said.
It can be a problem for a monogamous gay couple when transmission occurs several months or years into a relationship and one thinks the other’s been playing up.
So even if you haven’t been at risk in the last six months you could still harbour it.
As well as encouraging people at risk to get screened, the current campaign also aims to educate people so they’re not offended if their doctor offers them a test, Donovan said.
Chlamydia is one of the most easily treated STIs, requiring just a single dose of antibiotics.
When it does cause symptoms in men, these can include discomfort when urinating, pain in the anus, and discharge from the penis or anus.
Left untreated it can cause epidymitis, an infection of the tube around the testicles. Five to 10 percent of men with chlamydia develop this problem, Donovan said.
It can also cause inflammation of the anus which can increase the risk of HIV.
However, it’s not just gay men who have to worry about chlamydia. Inner-city lesbians are also at risk.
Donovan said studies had shown chlamydia is as common in women who have sex with women as it is in women who have sex with men.
The major risk factor is having sex with men. If they have sex with men or their partner was having sex with men it’s worth their while getting tested, he said.
When symptoms occur in women they can include bleeding from the vagina, especially after sex, and discharge. If untreated it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.
Donovan hoped increased screening for chlamydia would help control the expected outbreak in the gay community of LGV -“ lymphogranuloma venereum -“ which is caused by certain strains of chlamydia. It can result in chronic inflammation of the lymphatic system and can be fatal.
LGV first appeared in North America and in Europe only a few years ago and there are now four confirmed cases in NSW and two in Victoria.
Rates of gonorrhea and syphilis are also at epidemic levels in the gay community. All men who have had sex with another man in the previous 12 months should have at least one STI test a year, while men who have multiple sexual partners should get tested every three to six months, according to health guidelines.