Genital warts on the ropes in Australia

3 minute read

The condition has virtually been eradicated in men under 21, as well as young Indigenous men and women.

Genital warts may be close to eradication in young Australians, according to new national figures that appear to highlight the collateral benefits of the vaccination campaign against HPV.

But despite the good news, syphilis figures continue to rise, highlighting the need for increased testing as socialising returns to normal after lockdowns, experts say.

The annual report on sexually transmissible infections, published by the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW, found no recorded diagnoses of genital warts among heterosexual men aged 21 and under who attended sexual health clinics last year.

This is a stark contrast to 2006 when the proportion of people presenting with warts at their first visit was one in 10. 

A similar trend occurred in women, following the introduction of the HPV vaccination program in 2007.

In 2006, 13% of young women attending the clinic for the first time were positive for genital warts, but by last year the figure dropped to only five total cases.

Researchers also found a considerable decline among women aged 21 to 29, with the proportion dropping from 16% to 0.8%.

These trends reflect the success of the catch-up vaccination program for women aged 26 or under who missed the routine vaccine in high school, the authors wrote.

Rates of genital warts also dropped substantially among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women under 21, from 5% to zero cases over the same period. Donovanosis, once a common infection among remote Aboriginal communities, has also been effectively eradicated, with only two cases recorded since 2012.

Aside from the progress made towards eliminating HPV, reported declines in notification rates for other common STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, were likely the result of decreased testing nationwide rather than a drop in infections. 

Chlamydia cases had dropped from 30,000 to 26,500 over the same period, while gonorrhoea cases declined from 91,000 to 87,000.

But the authors said this corresponded with a 14% reduction in the number of Australians getting tested for these infections compared to pre-pandemic levels.

On the other hand, syphilis cases rose to 5500 cases last year, up from 5300 in 2020.

The report also found more than one in 25 young adults aged 15-29 had chlamydia last year, with less than a third receiving a diagnosis for the disease.

Professor Andrew Grulich, epidemiologist and specialist public health physician at the Kirby Institute, said that while it made sense that there was a reduction in testing during the pandemic when people were having less casual sex, “as people return to their normal sexual behaviours, it is important to return to regular STI testing”.

Dr Skye McGregor, an epidemiologist with the Kirby Institute and one of the authors of the report, spoke about the importance of encouraging a greater uptake of STI testing nationwide, particularly for those who may have delayed doing so during the pandemic.

“People with chlamydia and gonorrhoea, the most common notifiable STIs, often don’t have any symptoms,” she said in a statement.

“But these STIs can still be passed on to others and cause serious long-term health concerns like pelvic inflammatory disease in women and infertility in men and women.”

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