Victorians are being warned to be on their guard if attending Sydney Mardi Gras this month as the city battles a syphilis outbreak.

The AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) this month launched a health promotion campaign urging gay men to get tested at least twice yearly for the STI after figures showed a sharp increase in syphilis rates among gay men.

Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) executive director Mike Kennedy told Southern Star that although syphilis diagnoses in Victoria had dropped over the last two years, it was still an issue in Sydney.

“It’s still an issue everywhere … and it’s an issue in all of the developed countries,” he said.

In response to Victoria’s own syphilis outbreak, the VAC’s Drama Downunder campaign includes regular messages about syphilis testing.

A National Gay Men’s Syphilis Action Plan — developed by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research — issued a paper last November arguing for the establishment of a nationally consistent approach to reduce syphilis in gay men, including a focus on testing, improving ways of notifying sexual partners and stepping up trials on a drug which may prevent transmission.

“What’s going to come out of the National Action Plan is a stronger focus on trying to identify how we might target those messages,” Kennedy said.

“So the messages that go to everyone saying you need condoms and water-based lube to reduce syphilis transmission, it’s only part of the story because it can be transmitted in other ways, so you need testing as well.”

There have been 750 syphilis diagnoses in Australia in the year to March 2009, with most cases occurring among gay men.
NSW Health figures showed in 2009 there were 490 cases of infectious syphilis, up from 428 the previous year. In Victoria the figure was 373 for 2009, down from 422 in 2007.

Symptoms of syphilis usually begin with one or more painless, but highly infectious, sores on the skin.
If someone else comes into close contact with these sores, which happens during sexual contact, then they can also catch the condition.

Gay men who have more than 20 partners over six months or are engaged in risky sexual activities such as group sex are in the high-risk category.

Kennedy said it was important people are tested as syphilis doesn’t always present symptoms and many cases go undiagnosed.

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