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Government launches critical new weapon in fight against syphilis

Madelaine Dickie -

The Federal Government has begun rolling out what it says is a critical new weapon in the fight against the deadly syphilis outbreak which has gripped northern Australia.

Federal Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt said from today on-the-spot syphilis tests would be available in three high risk regions â€" Townsville, Cairns and Darwin.

The instant tests allow people to be diagnosed straight away and to be treated immediately, rather than have to wait a fortnight for results from traditional blood tests.

"These tests are a critical weapon in the fight to curb and control the spread of syphilis," Mr Wyatt said.

Three thousand test kits have been sent to the Townsville Aboriginal and Islanders Health Service, 3,000 to the Wuchopperen Health Service in Cairns and 4,000 to the Danila Dilba Health Service in Darwin.

"The three sites we are initially targeting have been chosen in consultation with the Queensland and Northern Territory governments and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, based on the high number of syphilis cases in these areas," Mr Wyatt said.

"Quality assurance programs have also been provided to support the health services to increase syphilis testing and treatment rates, including a strong focus on expectant mothers and women considering pregnancy."

"The Department of Health has finalised negotiations with suppliers for the provision of 62,000 test kits, so all services involved will have further supplies available."

Mr Wyatt said curbing the syphilis outbreak and ensuring the safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was a top priority. The federal government is spending $8.8 million combating the outbreak.

Talks are underway for a second phase of the on-the-spot tests to be rolled out in the next few months with possible sites including Katherine, Arnhem Land and the Kimberley as well as locations in South Australia and extra services in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) warned earlier this year that northern Australia was in the middle of the worst outbreak of syphilis in three decades.

A tragic consequence of the outbreak has been the deaths of a number of babies whose mothers became infected or who were infected. Babies can die in the womb from syphilis infection or after birth.

The RACP warned that even with extra medical support crews on the ground immediately, it would still be a decade before the outbreak was under control in remote communities in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia's Kimberley and South Australia.

Wendy Caccetta

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