A medieval disease is making a resurgence in Australia and authorities are struggling to get it under control.
Once a problem contained to the North End, the sexually transmitted disease syphilis has now spread further across Australia, killing seven babies in its wake.
There have now been outbreaks in South Australia and in August the first reported congenital cases in 14 years were seen in Victoria.
In the worst cases, pregnant women are spreading syphilis to their children, with South Australia seeing a baby born with the fatal disease last year — the first in 18 years.
One infant died among two congenital cases reported last year.
There have now been seven congenital syphilis deaths since the outbreak was declared in Queensland in January 2011.
Overall there have been 15 congenital syphilis cases since the outbreak, among about 2400 in total.
Syphilis was once considered a scourge of the Middle Ages that caused madness — but although in modern times it is easily treatable in its early stages, experts warn it will take years to get rates down nationally.
To tackle the “perfect storm” of sexually active and transient young people moving the disease across the country, the Government this month committed a further $ 12.4 million to its testing program.
The funding will “extend and sustain instant testing and treatment” in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in northern, southern and Central Australia.
It’s among $ 21.2 million provided until June 2021 to get the disease under control.
Cases are predominantly among young people aged 15 to 29.
Almost 120 health professionals have been trained to use test kits and more than 4000 people have been screened by health services funded in the first phases of the program.
Minister for Indigenous Health Ken Wyatt said immediate diagnosis and treatment was “promising a critical breakthrough in curbing the spread of the disease”.
The funding boost includes $ 1 million for rapid responses in any other areas where an emerging syphilis outbreak is detected.
“We are making progress but the fact that this preventable and treatable yet deadly disease is rampant in some First Nations communities is a tragedy that should never have been allowed to happen,” Mr Wyatt said.
He also called on the states and territories to increase their commitment at a local level.
He said he had written to health ministers reiterating that extra resources were their responsibility and “fundamental to stopping the syphilis outbreak and saving lives”.
In October, Malaysia became the first country in the Western Pacific to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.
Malaysia was among the early adopters globally of national prevention, starting antenatal HIV screening in 1998.
In the World Health Organisation Western Pacific region an estimated 45,000 pregnant women are infected with syphilis each year.
Births can result in miscarriage and stillbirth, low birth weight and serious neonatal infections.
Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said countries should follow Malaysia’s example.
The outbreak of the disease in South Australia was only declared in November.
In Victoria, three-quarters of cases reported were from homosexual and bisexual men. But Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton said there had been a “sharp increase” in infected women over the past three years.
“It had virtually disappeared in the ’90s in Australia. It’s had a slow rise since that time, and then in recent years we’ve seen an upturn,” he said in August.
“Stillbirth is obviously the most tragic outcome, but it can also cause deformities of bone, skin, limbs and the brain in newborns. It’s preventable and we shouldn’t allow it to happen.”
Syphilis can be transmitted by vaginal, anal and oral sex and condoms greatly reduce the risk of transmission.
The infection is often asymptomatic, making screening crucial, but there can be genital sores and rashes.
The Young, deadly, syphilis free campaign aims to have 30,000 young people in communities affected by the outbreak test for STIs by June 2019.