Scientists will use genomic sequencing for the first time in a bid to track down rising syphilis outbreaks across Melbournes suburbs. New Department of Health data shows the city’s inner suburbs are consistently plagued with the sexually transmitted infections, but there have been surges in Melbourne’s outer western and southeastern areas.
The figures show a 45 per cent increase in notified syphilis cases, climbing from 950 cases in 2015 to 1375 cases in 2018.
The City of Melbourne recorded the highest number of infections in the three-year period, posting 465 cases.
Port Phillip came next with 420, closely followed by Stonnington at 418 and then City of Yarra with 317 cases and Moreland with 194.
Darebin in the city’s north recorded 162 cases, Glen Eira had 151, while three outer western areas in Brimbank (141), Wyndham (135) and Maribyrnong (125) rounded out the top 10.
Epidemiologist Eric Chow dubbed the increase in cases as an “epidemic” and said scientists would now use genomic sequencing – similar to the sequencing used to track COVID-19 cases – as a way to understand the movements of syphilis outbreaks.
“It has never been used before,” he said.
“The epidemic, which was once focused on gay men in inner Melbourne, has now become much more generalised and has spread to the outer suburbs.”
While the number of syphilis infections among men in same-sex relationships continues to rise – a 21 per cent increase – cases among women spiked by 220 per cent and heterosexual men 129 per cent.
“The major concern with the rise in syphilis among women of reproductive age is infection during pregnancy and congenital syphilis,” Dr Chow said.
“We know syphilis can cause major complications during pregnancy and even result in the death of the child, so we’re urging all women at high risk to get screened during their third trimester in addition to the universal screening during the first.”
The largest number of syphilis cases in women were reported in Port Philip despite infections concentrated in the northwest and southeast.
Similarly, heterosexual men with syphilis were concentrated in the outer northwest and southeast Melbourne, particularly Brimbank.
The largest number of syphilis cases for heterosexual men remained in the City of Melbourne.
Syphilis starts with an appearance of sores or ulcers before developing into a rash.
If untreated, it could eventually cause a brain infection, dementia and blindness.
It can be cured with penicillin, but people may not seek treatment because they do not realise they have been infected, as syphilis is often asymptomatic following signs of the initial infection.
SYPHILIS CASES PER LOCAL GOVERNMENT AREA 2015-2018
City of Melbourne: 465
Port Phillip: 420
Stonnington: 418
City of Yarra: 317
Moreland: 194
Darebin: 162
Glen Eira: 151
Brimbank: 141
City of Wyndham: 135
Maribyrnong: 125
Melton: 123
Hume: 110
Moonee Valley: 109
Boroondara: 99
Hobsons Bay: 85
Monash: 80
Whittlesea: 80
Casey: 75
Frankston: 75
Knox: 65
Dandenong: 64
Greater Geelong: 64
Banyule: 58
Whitehorse: 54
Kingston: 53
Bayside: 46
Yarra Ranges: 38
Greater Bendigo: 35
Manningham: 35
Mildura: 35

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