Australia’s top medical agency is calling for a coordinated national response to end the syphilis outbreak that has been spreading across the country for 10 years.
The main point:
- The interstate syphilis epidemic has been spreading for 10 years
- AMA is calling on the national Centers for Disease Control to respond to the outbreak
- Aboriginal medical groups are asking for more funds for prevention and treatment in the field
Sexually transmitted infections are easy to treat but have spread to parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia since January 2011.
It mainly affects young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote and rural areas, particularly Northern Australia.
More than 3,600 people have been diagnosed since the outbreak began, according to federal Health Department data.
“It is very clear that there is a very ineffective response to the epidemic of this very significant disease in four states,” said NT president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Robert Parker.
“And there is absolutely no coordination from various states and territories in dealing with it,”
Australia currently does not have a national CDC, but the AMA has asked the Federal Government to establish one since 2017.
In a statement, a spokesman from the federal Department of Health said a body called the National Framework for Control of Infectious Diseases, which was endorsed by the COAG Health Council in 2014, was considered a better choice than the national CDC.
Easy to care for, hard to control
Syphilis can be diagnosed with a blood test and treated with penicillin.
But Dr Andrew Webster, head of clinical governance at Darwin-based Indigenous health service Danila Dilba, said infections could have catastrophic consequences if not treated early.
“This is a very challenging disease to treat because people don’t necessarily know they have the disease until they come to a clinic, get a blood test, and then be identified so we can treat it,” said Dr Webster.
“If left untreated, it can lead to tertiary syphilis which can make something that looks like dementia, in my opinion, in layman’s terms.”
Syphilis can also be passed from pregnant women to their children, with departmental data confirming at least 10 congenital cases and three deaths across Australia since 2011.
“If this epidemic occurs on the Queensland-New South Wales border… there will be a lot of interest and federal intervention.
“Because Aboriginal children are in remote places, the Federal Government doesn’t seem to care.”
Funding cliff scare
In 2017, a group of state and federal government health officials developed a strategic approach to dealing with the outbreak, which was supported by the ministry’s advisory board in addition to an action plan.
$ 21.2 million in federal funding goes to Aboriginal community-controlled health organizations to fund additional staff and on-site testing through 2021.
John Paterson, CEO of NT Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance, said that the fund expires next month.
He questioned what the screening and education programs in remote areas meant, which he said needed more resources.
“That’s not enough,” he said.
Dr Webster praised the Federal Government for its efforts so far in controlling the outbreak, and hopes funding and good relations with Indigenous health organizations will continue.
A department spokesman said the government’s response would be reviewed this year before further commitments were made.
He said the syphilis drug was also added to the Emergency Medicine Supply Schedule in September 2019, and it is intended to treat infections for Aboriginal populations in non-remote areas in a timely manner.
Indigenous medical groups hope the positive relationship they built with the government during the COVID-19 pandemic response will help streamline responses to other major health issues in the future.
“This allows us to get our input and have a voice and ensure that Aboriginal voices are heard,” said Paterson.
“A very similar model is what we should strive for to tackle STIs too.”