Australia’s Chlamydial Pursuits

As a researcher working in sexual health, I try to keep an ear to the ground with regard to developments in the STI realm. Regardless of one’s personal or professional interests, however, it is difficult to ignore the spotlight that has been shining on chlamydia in recent times. From posters on public toilet doors, to plotlines on Australia’s second-favourite evening soap, one can certainly argue that chlamydia is Australia’s STI du jour.

Chlamydia Giant Microbe

As I am currently devoting my professional life to chlamydia-specific research, I must disclose that the chlamydia fervor is subsidizing my lifestyle. But aside from funding my penchant for fine cheeses and late-night Etsy binges, there are a number of reasons why chlamydia is deservedly the focus of national attention.

  • Chlamydia is common. As with the US and UK, chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed bacterial STI in Australia, and is the most common notifiable infection, STI or otherwise. Chlamydia notifications have risen consistently over the last fifteen years, and 80% of these are in young people (aged 15–29 years). Prevalence estimates vary, but tend to range from 3– 5% in young people.
  • Chlamydia tests are easy and accurate. A simple urine test is the usual procedure; this is good news for men with visions of urethral swabs dancing in their heads. Women can also be offered the option of self-collected vaginal swabs or a quick swab during a Pap smear. The current testing guidelines recommend annual testing for people aged 15–29, but more work is needed as testing rates remain low.
  • Chlamydia is treatable with a dose of antibiotics. This is an important message to convey to young people and those working in primary health care – having a test is a less frightening prospect when your doctor can also proffer a simple solution.
  • Chlamydia is usually silent. Chlamydia is asymptomatic in approximately 80% of cases, and can lead to detrimental reproductive health consequences like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This makes it all the more necessary to get the word out about having regular tests as a part of good preventive health practice, even if you aren’t exhibiting any symptoms. (As the sexual health gurus say, if you’re pissing razor blades you tend to investigate quickly!)
  • Condoms can prevent the spread of infection. With the usual caveat of consistent and correct use, condoms provide excellent protection against the transmission of chlamydia.

The problem is well-established, the health promotion messages are getting out, so the question now becomes, ‘Where to from here?’ The good news is there is a flurry of research taking place to explore ways to reduce chlamydia prevalence and the associated long-term health consequences, and to normalise chlamydia testing as a routine component of preventive health care for young people. These range from trialling organised screening programs, to reassessing the effectiveness of the current recommended treatment regime, to better understanding the biological pathway between chlamydia and PID, to developing a chlamydia vaccine. As the evidence accumulates, it is an exciting time to be embroiled in chlamydia in Australia. Stay tuned, and keep an eye on the koalas.

Guest blogger Alaina Vaisey currently spends her days working on an Australian chlamydia testing pilot program. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree from George Washington University, and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Melbourne. Please do not think less of her for including a link to an episode of ‘Home and Away’ in the above post.