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Be positive that you're negative for an STI

9 January 2023

The content of this media release discusses pregnancy, sexually transmissible infections, stillbirth, premature birth, miscarriage and neonatal death.

Concerns over an annual spike in sexually transmissible infections (STIs) post-festive season has prompted calls for the the state’s party-goers to test early in the new year.

Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service Director of Sexual Health Services Dr Darren Russell said increased celebrations could be linked to a reduction in testing for STIs.

“There has never been a better time to get tested for an STI than after Christmas and end-of-year parties,” Dr Russell said.

“Don’t feel uncomfortable, awkward, or embarrassed asking for an STI test with a Queensland Health clinician – it is literally the job of our health professionals and completely confidential.

“Plus, you certainly won’t be the first – or last – person who has walked through our doors asking to be tested.

“If you’re having vaginal, anal, or oral sex, it is recommended that you get checked at least once each year. The sooner you find out if you have an STI, the sooner you can get the care that you need.”

The rate of infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, has climbed nationwide over the past 20 years.

Between 2001 and 2021, the rate of infectious syphilis notifications in Queensland increased over 550 per cent from 3.1 to 20.2 cases per 100,000 people each year.

Queensland Health has observed syphilis notifications increasing in the south-east corner of Queensland, with the highest numbers being in Metro South, Metro North, Gold Coast and Cairns and Hinterland.

Syphilis is known as ‘the great pretender’ as its symptoms can look like many other diseases.

The primary stage can lead to sores which may be painless or painful. The infection will progress to the secondary stage if the person does not receive treatment which can result in skin rashes and/or mucous membrane lesions in addition to fevers, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss and muscle aches.

Of particular concern was increasing notifications of syphilis in women of reproductive age and the increased risk of syphilis during pregnancy, which can be passed on to an unborn baby (congenital syphilis).

Congenital syphilis can result in stillbirth, premature birth, low-birth weight, miscarriage, neonatal death, or longer-term health complications for the baby including organ, nerve and brain damage.

Between 2001 and 2021, 41 cases of congenital syphilis were reported in Queensland. Sadly, of these, 13 were associated with stillbirth or died after birth.

Dr Russell said it was critical to test for syphilis in pregnancy so the infection could be treated before the baby is born, preventing or minimising harm to the baby.

“It is critical to have a syphilis test in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – or ideally, before falling pregnant – as untreated syphilis can be passed on to an unborn baby several years after a person was first infected,” he said.

“But the good news is – syphilis is treatable, and prompt treatment in pregnancy is safe and effective in treating the mother and preventing complications.

“The earlier the infection is treated, the lower the risk is to the baby.”

The best way to prevent getting an STI is to practice safe sex, however it’s crucial to also inform sexual partners in order to stop transmission.

Sexual partners need to be tested and, if positive, treated at the same time.

Health websites, such as Let Them Know (for everyone), The Drama Downunder (for gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men), and Better to Know (for First Nation peoples) can assist you to identify and inform your sexual partners.

To learn more about consent, condoms and STIs, visit the Queensland Health website.

For bereavement support after infant loss, please reach out to your local GP, or relevant organisations, such as SANDS or Pregnancy Loss Australia.

Last updated: 9 January 2023