FAR north Queensland is in the grip of an epidemic of HIV and syphilis, with Cairns the current centre of both infections.

In an interview with the ABC, sexual health expert Dr Darren Russell said the syphilis epidemic started in 2011 in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Mount Isa region and has spread.

“It’s pretty much out of control,” he said.

“It has crossed into the Northern Territory, the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and just November last year hit South Australia too.

“It’s an Indigenous epidemic in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s caused the deaths of four babies from congenital syphilis.”

Dr Russell said new infections are occurring both in heterosexual people and in men who have sex with men.

He added that syphilis is “eminently controllable” once diagnosed, with treatment consisting of a single antibiotic injection.

“In a country like Australia in this day and age it’s almost unbelievable, it shouldn’t occur,” he said.

While HIV and syphilis have been on the rise in far north Queensland, hepatitis C is set to be wiped out in the region in the next few years.

Dr Russell said new medications are now listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, allowing treatment to cure hepatitis C in usually eight to 12 weeks.

“Now we really can treat everyone,” he said.

“A group of us got together in Cairns and said we’re going to make Cairns hep C free by 2020.”

The Lotus Glen prison in Cairns recently made history by becoming the first prison in Australia, possibly the world, to be made free of hepatitis C through treatment.

People can seek testing for sexually transmitted infections via GPs or sexual health clinics.

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