Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI) caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium. It has a complex disease progression and early symptoms are often unnoticed. Left untreated, it can have significant health effects in several organ systems. In pregnant women it can lead to birth complications, congenital syphilis and miscarriages.

Page last updated: 27 August 2021

Syphilis in Australia

Notifications of infectious syphilis among females have increased considerably since 2011, in part due to the ongoing outbreak in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples residing in predominantly regional and remote areas of Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and South Australia. Notifications among non-Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women outside of outbreak declared regions, including major cities, have also contributed to the marked increase in notifications overall. Particularly concerning is the high proportion of infections occurring in women of reproductive age which has considerable public health implications given the increased risk of congenital syphilis and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Sustained high rates of infectious syphilis in men, including men who have sex with men, is also contributing to the rise in notifications overall.

Response

On 23 March 2021, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) endorsed the National strategic approach for responding to rising rates of syphilis in Australia 2021 (Strategic Approach) developed to guide the national response to the continued rise in syphilis notifications in Australia. The Strategic Approach builds on and intersects with existing syphilis related national activities on STI and blood borne viruses (BBV), including the:

The Strategic Approach outlines three national targets which provide a specific focus for efforts towards rising rates of syphilis and adverse outcomes in Australia:

  • Reduce incidence of syphilis overall, with a focus on women of reproductive age.
  • Eliminate1 congenital syphilis.
  • Control outbreaks2 among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.

Supporting the Strategic Approach is the National syphilis surveillance and monitoring plan (Surveillance Plan) which outlines indicators that will be used to monitor progress towards achieving the three specific targets.

National syphilis surveillance reports will be published quarterly and report on the progress against the targets and indicators in the Strategic Approach and Surveillance plan.

Infectious and congenital syphilis campaign

As part of the Australian Government response to syphilis, in July 2021, the Don’t fool around with syphilis campaign was launched. For further information on the campaign, including printable resources for the general public and health professionals, refer to the Don’t fool around with syphilis webpage on the Australian Government Department of Health website.

National Strategic Approach

Surveillance Plan

National Syphilis Surveillance Quarterly Reports

The reports provide a quarterly account of progress against the targets and indicators in the Strategic Approach and Surveillance Plan. Reporting began in quarter 1 of 2021.

Quarter 1 - 1 January to 31 March 2021


  1. The 2018-22 National STI Strategy and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander BBV and STI Strategy, define elimination of congenital syphilis as ‘no new cases of congenital syphilis nationally notified for two consecutive years’
  2. At the time of writing Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia were the only jurisdictions with officially declared outbreak regions. New outbreak regions in other jurisdictions may be declared with endorsement from the CDNA, after which this target will be amended.