Doctors and health professionals are preparing for an expected increase in rates of syphilis infection among gay men in Sydney, following rises in other cities with large gay populations.

Last week the Los Angeles Times featured statistics on new syphilis infections. San Francisco reported 139 new cases last year, up from a low of 26 in 1998, while 187 new infections were reported in Los Angeles last year, up from a low of 88 in 1999. Outbreaks have also occurred in gay community centres such as London, Manchester, Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Staff specialist at the Sydney Sexual Health Service, Chris Bourne, said that six new cases of syphilis infection had been detected between July and December 2001 -“ six times the number of cases reported between January and June last year.

Other Australian cities are not seeing the same increase, although obviously the potential for an increase is there, he said.

Bourne said some people infected with syphilis remain asymptomatic, while others report rashes, ulcers, fevers and swelling of the lymph nodes. Painless sores on the genitalia, anus or mouth can also signify infection, he said.

Sydney Sexual Health Service would be encouraging gay men to be tested for syphilis via a public education campaign run in association with South Eastern Sydney Area Health Service, the AIDS Council of NSW and local GPs, Bourne said.

In Los Angeles, 61 percent of people presenting with new syphilis infections identify as gay, while the pattern of infection in San Francisco is even more pronounced: 82 percent of new cases involve gay or bisexual men.

General practitioners from the Taylor Square and Holdsworth House practices who spoke to Sydney Star Observer this week said they were also seeing an increase in the number of new syphilis infections, although they were not high numbers and not necessarily all among gay men.

Most of the inner-city practices with gay male clients are noticing an increase in the number of locally acquired cases of syphilis, said Dr Robert Finlayson of the Taylor Square Clinic. Previously most new cases of syphilis had come from men who had recently travelled overseas, and the fact that more men seemed to be acquiring the infection locally was a cause for concern, he said.

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