HIV rates stable but chlamydia cases skyrocket

New strategies targeting young people are needed to stop the chlamydia epidemic, the report’s authors said. Flickr/Paul H Photography

Australia’s rates of HIV infection have remained stable for the last five years but gonorrhoea cases shot up 25% last year, while chlamydia rates have reached epidemic levels among young people, a new report shows.

The annual 2011 HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report, produced by the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society, uses data collected from health departments, sexual health organisations, hospitals and research centres to develop a detailed picture of the state of the nation’s sexual health.

The 2011 report, which uses data collected in 2010, showed that more than 10,000 people were diagnosed with gonorrhoea in 2010, a jump of 25% since 2009. Chlamydia rates had soared 17% on 2009 levels.

“Chlamydia is increasing relentlessly. We have got a rampant epidemic, unfortunately, among young Australians aged between 15 and 30 years,” said UNSW Associate Professor David Wilson, head of the Surveillance and Evaluation Program for Public Health at the Kirby Institute.

“Just last year we had 75,000 cases diagnosed in Australia. That’s more cases than of any other medical condition in Australia.”

Although more people are getting tested for sexually transmitted infections, the overall rise in chlamydia rates was so great it could not be explained by more widespread testing, he said.

“It points to the fact that unprotected sex is still relatively common among young people. We need to come up with some innovative preventive strategies,” he said.

“We need something coordinated that will reach the populations at risk because what we are doing to date isn’t working.”

The good news: HIV stable, genital warts down

Despite better drugs keeping HIV patients alive for longer, the overall rate of HIV infection had steadied nationally over the last five years at around 1000 cases a year. In 2010, 1043 new cases were diagnosed.

The rate of infection had risen slightly in Queensland and Western Australia, but dropped in NSW and Victoria, the report showed.

“Nationally, we have levels that are much lower than almost any part of the world. This is attributable to our ongoing successful public health programs,” said Associate Professor Wilson.

The report said that between 2006 and 2010, 66% of new HIV diagnoses occurred among men who have sex with men, 25% were attributed to heterosexual contact, 3% to injecting drug use and exposure was undetermined in 7%.

Rates of genital warts fell from 10.9% in 2007 to 3.4% in 2010, attributable largely to the 2007 introduction of widespread vaccinations against human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes genital warts and cervical cancer.

“Since that was introduced, [HPV rates] have reduced by more than three fold over just three to four years,” said Associate Professor Wilson.

Safe sex workers

Rates of HIV infection among sex workers remained low, the report found.

“That’s because we have a reasonably good legislative environment for sex workers,” said Associate Professor Richard Hillman, from the University of Sydney’s Sexually Transmitted Infections Research Centre.

“We always have to fight against right wing forces trying to shut down brothels, but the reality is, from a public health perspective, that the women who choose to go into sex work look after their own health as well as those of their clients,” said Associate Professor Hillman, who was not involved in the preparation of the report.

He said public health campaigns should use social media to target young people at risk of developing sexually transmitted diseases and to help cut the chlamydia rate.

“People are not gong to stop exploring their sexuality, so we need to be on our guard and constantly reinvent the fight,” he said.

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