New research released this Thursday from the Australasian Sexual Health Conference in Darwin (23-25 Oct) found the highest rates of positive chlamydia tests in adolescent females in girls aged 12-15 years. This comes as Annual Surveillance Reports published on Monday identified chlamydia as the most frequently reported sexually transmissible infection, with 82,707 cases diagnosed in 2012.
'Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Professor David Wilson from the Kirby Institute, which publishes the reports. 'It is likely that there are five times as many more Australians with chlamydia that is undiagnosed, who may be at increased risk of infertility and other reproductive health problems. We estimate that as many as one-in-20 young Australians between the ages of 15 and 24 have chlamydia."
New research has found adolescents as young as 12-15 years are also at risk.
The study, conducted by the Burnet Institute, analysed testing data from five states over three years (Victoria, NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania). It found the percentage of chlamydia positive tests among females was highest in adolescent girls aged 12-15 years (13%).
This compares to 12% in those aged 16-19 years, and 8% in women aged 20-24 years. Among males, the percentage of chlamydia positive tests was highest in those aged 16-19 years (15%) compared to 9% in boys aged 12-15 years and 13% in men aged 20-24 years.
Lead researcher Carol El-Hayek is quick to explain the higher rates in young girls 'are likely due to testing of girls presenting with identified sexual risk or symptoms, whereas girls in the older age groups are more routinely tested and therefore more negative tests are captured." Nevertheless, this is seen as a wake-up call.
'Clearly, Australian adolescents as young as 12 are vulnerable to STIs, but the younger they are, the less likely they are to be tested. We need a better understanding of the sexual risk practices of young people in order to minimise their risk and ensure they have access to testing and treatment," says El-Hayek.
Understanding this risk is a challenge. In another study presented at the Sexual Health Conference, also by the Burnet Institute, only1 in 7 of the young people surveyed and at risk of an STI were aware of it.
Levels of gonorrhoea and syphilis are soaring in Australia, causing concern for experts gathering at the Australasian Sexual Health Conference in Darwin this week.
Gonorrhoea levels have increased to 13,649 cases in 2012. The rate of diagnosis is 21 times greater in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than in the non-Indigenous population.
Syphilis rates have also increased and are close to the highest levels recorded in Australia, with 1,534 diagnoses in 2012.
The increases are primarily due to rises in infection among men who have sex with men in urban Australia.
After relative stability from 2003 to 2007, rates of diagnosis of gonorrhoea in 2012 increased almost three fold in New South Wales, 2.5 times in Victoria, by 53% in Queensland and 12% in Western Australia. In the past ten years, the rate of gonorrhoea diagnosis has been highest among people aged 20 – 24 years and 15 – 19 years.
In contrast, syphilis rates fell in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, primarily due to a decline in notifications in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. However, they increased in Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales.
Surveillance data also released from the conference provide an indication of unsafe sexual behaviour among men who have sex with men in Australia.
'The rise in unprotected sex with casual partners has been occurring gradually over the last decade and we're now at the highest level ever recorded in our surveys of gay and bisexual men," said Professor John de Wit director of the Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH).
Both syphilis and gonorrhoea can be transmitted through other sexual practices such as oral sex.
'Other practices, including oral sex, appear to contribute significantly to the acquisition of primary syphilis and urethral gonorrhoea, ' explains Jessica Nash from the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre.
'Our findings suggest that successful programs to control sexually transmitted infections, particularly syphilis and gonorrhoea, will need to utilise additional strategies, such as frequent testing, as well as promoting condom use," she concludes.