Cases of syphilis in South Eastern and Central Sydney have risen from 31 in 2001 to 160 in 2003, an increase health professionals are calling alarming.

ACON’s director of community health David McGuigan and member of the Sexually Transmissible Infections In Gay Men Action Group (STIGMA), told Sydney Star Observer the increase should be taken seriously.

We’re talking about a disease that was barely mentionable a couple of years back, whereas now a significant amount of people are getting syphilis, McGuigan said.

Similar rises had been reported in recent years among gay men in North American cities.

STIGMA members are urging gay men to test for syphilis and other STIs at least once a year.

Chairperson of STIGMA Associate Professor Mark Ferson said syphilis was a serious disease. If untreated it could lead to chronic infection, possibly resulting in neurological problems and life-threatening heart disease.

It’s preventable and treatable so naturally we want to do something about it, Dr Ferson said.

The rise in syphilis within the gay community is also worrying because a disproportionate number of new syphilis cases are also HIV positive. Implications for HIV positive men were of particular concern, McGuigan said.

We have seen [HIV positive] people with quite serious syphilis who have to be hospitalised on antibiotics for more than a week to try and fight the syphilis and get it out of their bodies, McGuigan said.

Having an STI when you are HIV positive complicates all sorts of things around treatment. I guess when your body’s fighting off two infections it has to work twice as hard.

The other thing is when you have syphilis and other STIs it’s much easier to pass HIV on, McGuigan said, noting syphilis infection increases an HIV-positive person’s viral load.

And people with an STI were also more susceptible to infection with HIV, he said.

I don’t think we can manage HIV infections without putting just as much effort into managing STIs, because they’re so closely linked, McGuigan said.

Higher levels of STI reports in gay men during the past few years have been linked with the recent increase in HIV infections in Sydney.

Syphilis is a bacterium that infects the throat, anus or genitals and then spreads through the bloodstream. Symptoms in the first stage of infection appear in the form of a painless sore in the area of sexual contact, although the bacterium may remain after the sore heals. Syphilis can also be asymptomatic.

Using condoms and water-based lubricant may reduce the risk of transmission, but only in the area covered by the condom. Syphilis is easily cured with antibiotic injections or tablets, with treatment ranging from 10 to 30 days.

For more information visit ACON.ORG.AU or visit your GP for a full STI test

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