Syphilis numbers drop amid outbreak


Cases drop amid Perth syphilis outbreak. Photo: Tex Reeks

WA’s syphilis case numbers have dropped, but only slightly, as health officials grapple with an outbreak of the potentially deadly sexual disease.

Infectious syphilis cases fell 8.14 per cent for the January to March quarter compared to the same time last year, according to WA’s Department of Health.

A spokeswoman with the department said sexually transmitted diseases were more common in young people, but that syphilis affects sexually active people of all ages.

If untreated, syphilis can cause serious long-term health effects and damage the brain, heart and other parts of the body. In 2015, 107,000 people died globally from the sexually transmitted disease.

“The most concerning population are women of childbearing age as syphilis during pregnancy can put the baby’s life at risk,” the Health Department spokeswoman said.

“Congenital syphilis can cause stillbirth, neonatal death, premature labour, low birth weight and musculoskeletal deformation.

“Anyone who has vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom can get syphilis.”

WA Syphilis figures. Photo: WA Health.

Despite the fall in the quarter year results, syphilis numbers have risen over the past several years in WA, from 319 cases, recorded in 2017, to more than 800 cases in 2021.

University of WA infectious disease expert Dr Charlene Kahler said most STDs are treatable but can cause severe problems if not caught early.

“The highest rates of infections of STIs are in young adults from 15 to 24-year-olds, and typically they make anywhere up to 40 odd per cent or 62 per cent of chlamydia cases that we see in the community, it’s very much in that age group, so that’s where we also so syphilis,” she said.

“Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are all readily treatable with antibiotics.

“All these infections at the moment, [we’re] seeing increases in the rates of incidents across Australia, not just in Western Australia.”

Dr Kahler said the issue was education and healthcare access in lower-socioeconomic communities but also explained STDs were no one’s fault.

“Where we see the steepest increase in incidents is in areas that have a lack of access to timely treatment for health care purposes,” she said.

“The problem is, any delay in that treatment will enable those infections to move into the community further from that next case.”

For more information on WA’s syphilis response, click here and for sexual health services, visit