Did you know COVID-19 isn’t the only infectious outbreak in Victoria right now? Learn about STIs

Written by La Trobe Community Health Promotion students

The STI Syphilis is also on the rise! This is actually a pretty big deal, as Syphilis was almost eradicated in the early 2000’s. Sadly, however, it has made a comeback and now cases have almost tripled since 2014. Syphilis also isn’t the only STI we need to be aware of- from 2009 to 2019 the whole of Australia saw an upwards trend in cases of syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia. (This is thought to have continued since then, but COVID has impacted the number of people getting tested).   

The COVID pandemic has brought infection control into the forefront of our minds. We have all followed the stats of case numbers, learned what we need to do to prevent the spread, and begun to understand the importance of testing and treatment. But while we know we’ve all become a master of keeping ourselves safe from contracting and spreading the ‘rona, do we have the same level of understanding of how to protect against the spread of other infections such as STI’s? If the answer is ‘no’, fear not! We may not be Dan and Jeroen, but we are here to give you our own little presser on Melbourne’s other outbreak! 

What are STIs?

STIs, or sexually transmissible infections are infections that can be passed on through unprotected vaginal, oral, anal sex (and sometimes through just skin-to-skin contact). 

STIs are no different to any other infection you may get! There should be no shame or stigma surrounding them. You wouldn’t judge someone who caught a cold, right?   

STI Stats

Did you know that young people (aged between 15-29 years of age) are disproportionately impacted by STI’s? Meaning when compared to the general population, we are more likely to be affected. For example, between 2009 and 2018 syphilis cases in this age group increased by 400% (and have then stayed just as high)!

Common STIs

Other than syphilis, some of the most common STI’s include gonorrhea, chlamydia, genital warts and genital herpes. Check out below for some common symptoms and how they are spread (and therefore how to avoid them!)

Syphilis – Syphilis is highly contagious and is commonly transmitted through skin to skin contact. In the beginning, it causes painless sores on the genitals, mouth or anus. Because the sores are painless it can often go unnoticed. If left untreated it can cause serious issues in the brain and heart. If caught in time syphilis can be treated with a simple course of penicillin. 

Chlamydia – Chlamydia can sometimes be referred to as the ‘silent infection’ because those that do contract it, often don’t have symptoms. It can be contracted when a person has unprotected sex with someone who has the infection. In people with vulvas, symptoms can look like unusual vaginal discharge, abnormal bleeding, and experiencing pain in the lower abdomen and during sex. For people with penises, it can look like discharge from the penis, discomfort when urinating and sore, swollen testes.   

Gonorrhea – Symptoms for people with vulvas can include experiencing pain while urinating and pain during sex. Symptoms for people with penises may include a burning sensation while urinating, discharge from the penis and swelling and pain in the testes. It may also affect the throat and anus but this is less common. Transmission commonly occurs through having unprotected sex. 

Genital herpes – Genital herpes can appear either on the mouth or around the genitals. Common symptoms include developing blisters, having cracks in the skin and experiencing pain and swelling in the genital area. Genital herpes is spread through skin to skin contact and can be transmitted through vaginal, oral and anal sex. 

Genital warts – Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They commonly appear around the genitals and anus. Warts may appear flat or raised and can be clustered together. Genital warts can be spread by having unprotected sex or through skin to skin contact.

Prevention and testing 

As the STI’s mentioned above are all transmitted by skin to skin contact or having unprotected sex, contraceptive barriers can be used to help prevent contracting an STI. Contraceptive barriers include external condoms, internal condoms and dams. 

Melbourne Sexual Health Centre recommends getting a routine STI test at least once a year, or even as regularly as every three months if you have a new partner, casual partners, or your partner has other partners. It is important to get tested even if you don’t think you have symptoms as often STI’s can be asymptomatic (meaning there are no noticeable symptoms). Testing is as simple as a urine test, swab or blood test (depending on what STI’s are being tested for). 

Testing can usually be done through your local GP, however, it’s totally understandable if you don’t want your family Doc to do these kinds of tests! There are a number of sexual health clinics that specialise in STI testing and sexual health, and they are a great place to go if you want a bit of anonymity. These kinds of clinics are also great at creating a positive experience and have a wealth of knowledge to share as this is their focus all day every day! Places like Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, for example, are free of charge for all, even if you don’t have a Medicare card (which is great news for international students) and can provide you with free condoms, dams and lube if needed!  

How to Get Tested 

How to be STI checked 

Getting tested for a STI is not as daunting as many people think and is as simple as:

  • Giving a urine sample
  • Blood test
  • Vaginal swab
  • Throat or mouth swab

For more information and a detailed step by step process visit this website.

Where can I get condoms?

External condoms (or regular condoms) can be found in all kinds of places. They can be purchased from supermarkets and chemists, sex shops, online and even some petrol stations! You can also quite often find vending machines that sell them individually in clubs and pubs (the Eagle bar on Melbourne (Bundoora) campus has vending machines in the toilets). 

Internal condoms and dams can be a little bit trickier to find and can also be more expensive. These can be found online, at chemists and from sexual health clinics such as Melbourne Sexual Health Centre. MSHC also provides free barrier protection to its patients- even more reason to go and get tested!   

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Testing locations 

Below are a few places located in the areas surrounding the La Trobe campuses. This is not an extensive list by any means, just a guide to get you started.

Melbourne Locations

LaTrobe University Medical Centre – only a short walk away from campus, Latrobe University Medical Centre is located on the corner of Plenty Road and Kingsbury Drive. They offer many services including STI checks and can offer contraceptive advice and counselling. Check out their website for more information.

Melbourne Sexual Health Centre – located at 580 Swanston Street in Carlton, the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre offers STI testing and treatment. They also offer free condoms, lubricants and dams to help prevent the transmission of STI’s. Services offered here are also free being funded by the government and Medicare.

Thorne Harbour – located at 200 Hoddle Street, Abbotsford. They offer STI testing and treatment services as well as HIV testing and counselling. All services provided are currently being bulk billed for Medicare cardholders.

Rural and regional STI testing is available throughout clinics across Victoria

Bendigo Community Health Services –  located at 165-171 Hargreaves Street, Bendigo. Offers free STI testing and has a female GP on certain days.

Better2Know – a private sexual health clinic located in the city of Shepparton providing testing for all common STIs. Once a sample is taken results are available within 1 to 5 working days. Bookings can be made online and results are also available through an online portal. 

Headspace Mildura – based at the Mildura Base Public Hospital which is located at  2/125 Pine Ave, Mildura. Young people aged 25 and under have access to a sexual health clinic providing free STI testing and management.

Albury Sexual Health Service – A confidential and free service that provides information on STIs.  The service focuses on young people and mainly men, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people although all others are still welcome.  

Smart health – If you are unable to attend a clinic you can order a STI self-screening kit online. There is a cost involved, however, it is available conveniently and discreetly. 

If you are wanting more information on the topic of sexual health, a page dedicated to sexual health has also been created in the health and wellbeing resource hub.