Infectious syphilis outbreak

This page provides information regarding the infectious syphilis outbreak affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in northern Australia.

Page last updated: 12 June 2018

Summary of the outbreak

  • There is an ongoing outbreak of infectious syphilis affecting young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, predominately aged between 15 and 29 years, living in northern Australia.
  • The outbreak began in northern Queensland in January 2011, extended to the Northern Territory in July 2013, and then onto the Kimberley region of Western Australia in June 2014. In March 2017, South Australia declared an outbreak in the Western, Eyre and Far North regions from November 2016.
  • Affected jurisdictions have responded to the outbreak in accordance with the 2015 National Guidelines for Syphilis.
  • The disease control interventions that are being implemented or enhanced include:
    • opportunistic and community screening/testing, particularly among young sexually active people aged less than 35 years;
    • immediate treatment of people who are symptomatic (e.g. genital ulceration), have tested positive for syphilis or are sexual contacts of cases;
    • reinforcement and focus on antenatal screening for syphilis, with particular attention paid to recommended guidelines for the ‘at risk’ population;
    • public health alerts, health protection education and campaigns; and
    • active follow up of cases.
  • The Commonwealth is funding the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) to deliver an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community awareness, education and testing campaign for syphilis and other sexually transmissible infections (STI).
  • The SAHMRI campaign:
    • targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15–34 years living in remote Aboriginal communities of Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia;
    • includes promotion through television and radio advertising, engaging with local community groups, social media, website and peer-to-peer networking; and
    • monitors and reports STI testing rates for the target group.
  • Campaign materials, including television advertisements and links to facebook and other social media pages, are available at the Young Deadly Free website maintained by SAHMRI.

Multi-jurisdictional Syphilis Outbreak Working Group (MJSO)

In April 2015, a Multijurisdictional Syphilis Outbreak Working Group (MJSO) of the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) was formed in response to this on-going outbreak among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas of northern Australia.

The MJSO, with representatives from affected jurisdictions, sexual health physicians, experts in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sexual health and the Australian Government Department of Health, meets monthly with the objective of co-ordinating the public health response for outbreak control and preventing transmission of syphilis from infected women to their babies, through rigorous antenatal testing and care.

There are two subcommittees of the MJSO:

  • the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community engagement sub-committee Engaging Aboriginal Communities subcommittee, formed in May 2015, to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were engaged in the outbreak response; and
  • the Data Working Group formed December 2015, to address epidemiological questions pertinent to the outbreak, including data collection and interpretation.


The National strategic approach for an enhanced response to the disproportionately high rates of STI and BBV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was prepared by the enhanced national response Governance Group of Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and endorsed by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council on 8 December 2017.

Supporting the Strategic Approach is an Action Plan, which is the Enhanced response to addressing sexually transmissible infections (and blood borne viruses) in Indigenous populations. The Action Plan will outline activities that are or will be undertaken to respond to the syphilis outbreak. The Action Plan was endorsed by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council on 8 December 2017.

A full report titled Infectious and congenital syphilis notifications associated with an ongoing outbreak in northern Australia was published in the March 2016 edition (Volume 40 Number 1) of the Communicable Diseases Intelligence.

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MJSO Surveillance Reports

The MJSO Surveillance Reports, formerly the MJSO Communique, summarise the epidemiological data from the outbreak for the period. For historical epidemiological data and MJSO activities refer to the MJSO Communiques.

2018 Surveillance Reports

1st Surveillance Report

MJSO Communiques

The MJSO meeting Communiques summarise the epidemiological data from the outbreak and the activities of the group for the period. For the latest epidemiological data refer to the MJSO Surveillance Reports.

2018 Communiques

20th Communique

2017 Communiques

2016 Communiques

Health promotion resources

Young, Deadly, Free website

Young, deadly, free is a multi-strategy STI awareness-raising campaign, developed in response to the ongoing syphilis outbreak affecting regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This campaign has been developed by SAHMRI, in consultation with the MJSO of CDNA. Campaign materials are available at the Young Deadly Free website.

“Talking poster” - Syphilis Story in Yolgnu Martha (the language of East Arnhem)


National case definitions for infectious syphilis, syphilis unspecified and congenital syphilis

National Strategies for Bloodborne Viruses and Sexually Transmissible Infections

Communicable Disease Information

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