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PCR test blitz spurred to counter Melbourne’s syphilis spike


Last year there were 56 cases of syphilis detected in Melton and there have been at least 11 cases so far this year. In Casey, in the far southeast, 47 cases were diagnosed last year and four infections have been confirmed so far in 2023. In the inner-northern municipality of Merri-bek, formerly known as Moreland, 55 infections were reported last year. . This year there are three so far. In Maribyrnong, 41 cases were reported last year and this year the number stands at seven.

Syphilis begins with the appearance of sores or ulcers, before progressing to a rash. If left untreated, it can eventually cause brain infection, dementia and blindness. It can be cured with penicillin, but people may not seek treatment because they don’t realize they are infected, as syphilis is often asymptomatic after showing signs of initial infection.

Sexual health doctors want PCR testing for syphilis to be widely used to help contain a growing epidemic in Melbourne.

As part of a recent study led by Chen, about 1,300 PCR tests were performed on samples from people in Melbourne who visited their GP because of symptoms of herpes, a viral skin disease that can be sexually transmitted.

The researchers were surprised to find that when the smears were PCR tested by pathologists, who screened them for herpes and syphilis, 18 people tested positive for syphilis. In about a third of the positive cases, the GP had not advised testing the sample for syphilis.

Chen said new research showed there was asymptomatic shedding of syphilis before the infection peaked at the secondary stage. Often an early indication of the disease was a stomach ulcer, which could look like herpes, which led him to ask GPs to consider automatic testing for syphilis when they are screened for other STIs.


“What we want to do is catch more primary-stage syphilis before it reaches the more contagious secondary stage,” he said. “If we use PCR testing more widely, then that is a very good way to detect the disease early.”

Some experts have speculated that the growing spread of syphilis is partly related to social media and online dating appswhich has resulted in an increase in casual sex, but Professor Chen said more research was needed into the complexities of what caused the epidemic.

Professor Deborah Williamson, professor of microbiology at the Doherty Institute, said rapid antigen point-of-care testing had emerged as the new frontier in infectious disease during the pandemic.

“We need to have the same kind of shifting mindset that we had for COVID testing for STIs,” Williamson said. “We need to look at self-testing for STIs at home and make sure people can test themselves and then be put into a treatment and care pathway.”

Williamson said the Doherty Institute was developing a rapid home test for mpox, formerly known as monkeypox.

She said genomic sequencing is also being used for the first time in Australia for sexually transmitted diseases, including drug-resistant gonorrhea, which is also on the rise.

The technology works by analyzing a virus or bacteria sample from a diagnosed patient, mapping the entire genetic code and then comparing it to other cases to determine if there is a connection.

Meanwhile, Australians attending Sydney WorldPride who are eligible for mpox vaccination are urged to get an injection before attending the global LGBTQ festival, which runs until March 5.

Globally, mpox cases have declined sharply since their peak in August 2022, including in Australia, where no new cases have been recorded this year. But low-level transmission in other non-endemic countries is prompting health authorities to recommend that festivalgoers at risk of infection get vaccinated.

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