There is concern in the health sector as Australia’s Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI)  rates rise, at the same time as testing rates decrease.  

The Federal Government recommends testing for STIs every 6-12 months, with some private health organisations suggesting every three months.  

Despite recommendations, the rate of STI testing has decreased 14 per cent compared to pre-Covid rates, with The Kirby Institute’s Dr Skye McGregor claiming the pandemic is to blame for the decrease in testing.  

“Prior to the pandemic we were seeing increases in chlamydia and gonorrhoea, but in 2021 we recorded a small decline. We believe this reduction is a consequence of both reduced testing due to social restrictions and lockdowns during 2020 and 2021,” she said. 

Sexually active university student Lara Rayner said she believes Covid has had people concerned with other health issues and have been overlooking their sexual health.  

After Covid, a lot of things haven’t opened back up, and people’s routines have changed, and I don’t know if people think about sexual health as much anymore because they’re worried about other aspects of health,” she said. 

Data from the Department of Health and Aged Care shows that notification rates for chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis all increased before the pandemic, between 2015-19.  

Data retrieved from the Department of Health and Aged Care

According to Sexually Transmissible Infections by The Kirby Institute, infection rates for Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea and Syphilis are proportionately higher in remote areas of Australia compared to rural regions and major cities.  

In 2021 all three STIs had higher notification rates per 100,000 population in remote Australia. 

Data retrieved from The Kirby Institute 

The increased prevalence of STIs in remote and rural regions is correlated to insufficient access to healthcare, education and sexual health services which increases social stigma in these areas.  

Professor Kate Senior, a medical anthropologist at the University of Newcastle, has researched the health of remote and Aboriginal communities in Australia.  

In a discussion for The Stand at the University of Wollongong, Prof Senior explained that young people in remote areas struggle with the stigma surrounding contracting an STI and getting tested more than inner-city populations.  

“Most young people actually had pretty good knowledge of STIs and safe sex,” Prof Senior said.

“What was more concerning was the high level of stigma that surrounded getting an STI and the lack of sympathy that young people had for someone that got into this sort of situation.” 

In remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, the infection rate of congenital Syphilis is 27 times higher than in non-indigenous remote communities. Chlamydia rates are three times higher and infection rates for Gonorrhoea are more than five times higher, according to data from The Kirby Institute.   

In Australia, Chlamydia is the most commonly notified STI having 86,916 notified cases in 2022, followed by Gonorrhoea. Syphilis is the most increased in prevalence, increasing by 95 per cent between 2015-19.

Data retrieved from The Kirby Institute 

Whilst Chlamydia cases have even prevalence in both males and females, males have significantly higher rates of Gonorrhoea and Syphilis infection.  

The increased rates of infection for males of gonorrhoea and syphilis are incidence of infection in gay and bisexual men, according to The Kirby Institute.  

In 2021, the gonorrhoea incidence rate among HIV‑positive gay and bisexual men was 38.2 new infections per 100 person-years and 24.0 per 100 person‑years among HIV‑negative gay and bisexual men.  

In 2021, there were an estimated 57,770 new gonorrhoea infections among gay and bisexual men and an estimated 13,490 new syphilis infections.  

The below infographic gives insight into young adults in the Illawarra about the barriers needed to be overcome to help reduce STI rates.  

“Young Aussies and Sex” by Tamara Robertson

Regarding contraceptive and disease prevention precautions, University of Wollongong student, Rachel Wheeler, 20, said she uses condoms the first time she has sex with someone. 

“Then it depends how much I like you. If I like you a lot and I think you’re respectful, then I will allow it to happen without a condom, but mostly with a condom at first,” Ms Wheeler said. 

“Mainly, and this sounds so bad, I don’t sleep with guys who you would think are sexually active to a high degree. I also take precautions by not having sex with different men in a short period of time.”

Ms Wheeler also gets an STI test every three months when renewing her contraceptive pill prescription.  

Whilst health professionals urge young adults to get tested regularly, Illawarra resident, George Hutchinson, 27, doesn’t think testing is accessible.  

“Just availability at the moment to go see doctors. It’s really hard,” he said.

“I’m going to get an STI check because you have to book it in for days or weeks in advance and probably because you’ve got to pay to go see a doctor as well. 

“The Sexual Health Clinic in Port Kembla has been booked out every time I ring them. It’s a big production to go in a get tested now.”

Ms Rayner believes that better access to bulk-billing doctors, all-round healthcare and sexual health education are continuous factors in decreasing STI rates.

“I feel like we got taught some stuff in high school but then got let into the world to figure the rest out on our own,” Ms Rayner said.

In relation to young people discussing STIs with their parents, Mr Hutchinson added that he believed there were gender differences.

It’s probably more of conversation girls can have with their mum, rather than a boy,” he said. “But that’s probably why most girls take sexual health more seriously than boys as well.”

New South Wales Health organisation, PlaySafe is recommended by the University of Wollongong to give advice on sexual health. In addition, Caddyshack ‘share affection, not infection’ is an organisation that promotes a positive approach to sex and sexuality for young people.