SEX THREAT: 800 locals catch STDs, hepatitis and HIV
A TRIPLE threat of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis is on the march across Northern NSW with almost 800 local cases of sexually transmitted and blood-borne diseases reported to the state's health bosses in the past seven months.
Chlamydia is the most virulent sexually transmitted infection in our region and the number of Northern Rivers residents infected with the "silent" disease could be three times higher than official data shows.
NewsRegional analysis of NSW Health statistics shows 531 new notifications of chlamydia across the Northern NSW health district of Lismore, Grafton, Byron Bay and Ballina since January 1.
In the same period, our region recorded 103 cases of gonorrhea and 10 of syphilis.
Hepatitis C is the region's most common blood-borne virus with 135 notifications in 2017.
There were 12 hep B transmissions and three HIV notifications.
Chlamydia is known as the "silent infection" because symptoms are rare, but if left untreated it can cause chronic pain and infertility in women.
STI expert Professor Basil Donovan warned our region's young sexually active residents to get tested for chlamydia.
"We're only actually diagnosing a quarter of the number of cases of chlamydia because we are only testing about 10% of young people each year," the UNSW Kirby Institute Sexual Health Program head said.
"Kids are embarrassed to go to the doctor and often the doctors are embarrassed to ask about it."
Northern NSW Local Health Service HIV & Related Programs manager Jenny Heslop urged Northern Rivers youth to take control of their sexual health.
"Because chlamydia doesn't come with rampant side effects, you'll have 16 to 25-year-olds who are sexually active not getting tested," Ms Heslop said.
"It's really a domino effect - it starts off with one, they have sex with four or five people and then it's transmitted to those four or five and those four or five have relations with two each and it keeps spreading."
Ms Heslop said her organisation handed out thousands of condoms at major youth events and university campuses but the safe sex message was still falling on deaf ears.
"The kids that we are seeing now have not been exposed to high levels of safe sex campaigning as in the 1980s," she said.
"Youth now talk a lot more about sex, it's a lot more freely expressed and they're a lot more sexually liberated.
"Youth think things like anal penetration on girls means you don't have to wear a condom because they won't get pregnant.
"It's not about pregnancy - it's about STIs."
HIV prevention strategy Expanded PrEP Implementation in Community is helping reduce the spread of HIV across the region.
"We advise people follow safe sex practices, using condoms to protect against HIV and other STIs and to seek advice about PrEP medications if they are at high risk of HIV infection," NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said in a media release about HIV prevention.
Injecting drug users spread hepatitis C
MOST people in the Northern Rivers with hepatitis C contracted the disease by sharing needles.
In the past seven months, 147 Northern NSW residents were infected with hepatitis C or B.
Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne virus in our region and is often spread by injecting drug users, sharing of shaving equipment and occasionally through sex.
Antiviral medications can eliminate hep C in 12 weeks and there is a vaccine for hep B.
"For people who know they have hepatitis C, there's no reason why they cannot be living hepatitis C free by this time next year," Northern NSW Local Health Service HIV & Related Programs manager Jenny Heslop said.
"If we are to achieve the elimination of hepatitis C, we need people to ask their GP about new treatments and to have a test."
Ms Heslop said local indigenous residents and those born in China, Korea and Vietnam were particularly at risk of hep B.
"If people do not know they have hepatitis B then they cannot undertake regular monitoring and won't be accessing life-saving treatment if they need to," she said.
Hepatitis NSW CEO Stuart Loveday said disease rates had transformed since new hep C treatments were added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme more than 12 months ago.
Mr Loveday said about one in seven people were cured of the disease in that time but it was vital to reach everyone impacted by the illness.
"Reaching the six out of every seven people living with hep C in NSW who have not yet commenced treatment will be much more difficult," Mr Loveday said early this year.
"This includes engaging with priority populations - people who inject drugs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people in custody - as well as others for whom treatment may be a low priority.
"We also need to increase hep C testing, with almost one in five people currently living with the virus undiagnosed."
HOW TO TELL IF YOU HAVE
In women, if symptoms are present, they may include:
- An unusual vaginal discharge
- A burning feeling when urinating
- Pain during sex
- Bleeding or spotting between periods or bleeding after sex
- Lower abdominal pain.
In men, if symptoms are present, they may include:
- A discharge from the penis
- Discomfort when urinating
- Swollen and sore testes.
- If left untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women and that can lead to chronic pain and infertility. In men, it can cause pain and swelling in one or both testicles.
- If detected early, chlamydia can be treated with a single dose of antibiotics.
- Discharge from the vagina or penis
- Pain or burning while urinating
- Swelling and pain in the testicles
- It may occur without symptoms, especially in women.
- Gonorrhea can lead to infertility in women.
- Use condoms (male and female) and dental dams to prevent gonorrhea infection.
- Sore or ulcer on the penis or vagina, anus or mouth
- A flat red skin rash on the feet, hands or the entire body.
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Hair loss
- Pain in the joints
- Flu symptoms
- If not treated, this disease can lead to severe brain and heart complications five to 20 years after contraction.
- There are three stages of syphilis. The first two stages are infectious.
- Syphilis is curable but, if left untreated, syphilis can lead to serious complications.
- A simple blood test can detect syphilis.
- Mild to severe tiredness
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Soreness in the upper right side of the stomach (under the ribs)
- Increased moodiness and depression
- Joint pain or swelling
- In Australia, hepatitis C is most often spread through the sharing of unsterile drug injecting equipment.
- New all-oral combination treatment has greatly improved health outcomes for people with hepatitis C.
- See your doctor immediately if you have any symptoms or if you think you have been put at risk of infection.
If you inject drugs, never share needles and syringes or other equipment such as tourniquets, spoons, swabs or water. Always use sterile needles and syringes. These are available free of charge from needle and syringe programs and some pharmacists. To find out where you can obtain free needles, syringes and other injecting equipment visit www.guild.org.au
Disclosure for all of these diseases
It is important to let your sexual partners know that you have a disease. Your local doctor and sexual health centre can help you to do this.