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Syphilis contacts at high risk of HIV and other STIs: study

People who have been sexual contacts of partners with syphilis are very likely to test positive for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, according to new research.

The study, presented by Dr Annika Blackie and colleagues at the recent online Australasian HIV & AIDS and Sexual Health Conferences, reviewed the test results of people who attended a Sydney sexual health clinic following reported contact with syphilis in 2018.

The bacterial infection often causes no symptoms but can progress to serious complications affecting various body organs if not treated.

It can be diagnosed by a blood test and easily cured with antibiotics.

Notifications have increased in Australia, particularly among gay and bisexual men and Aboriginal people, though it can affect anyone.

The study examined the sexual health test results of 191 people who had reported sexual contact with a partner who had syphilis.

While only 7.9% were diagnosed themselves, a greater proportion incidentally tested positive for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Of the 191 people tested, one in five tested positive for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, or herpes.

Two tested positive for HIV, and those with HIV were more likely to have syphilis.

Of the 15 people who tested positive, 20% had primary syphilis, 26.7% had secondary syphilis, and 53.3% had latent syphilis – a stage where no symptoms are present but the infection may still progress to severe symptoms without treatment.

The study authors concluded that while syphilis transmission was lower than previously reported rates, people who have had partners test positive should be considered a high-risk group for HIV and other infections.

Testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is available from GP clinics, sexual health services, and LGBTIQ health services.

Regular testing is recommended for all sexually active people, and sexual health professionals can provide guidance on the most appropriate frequency for individuals to test.

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