9 Sept 2019

Funds a welcome boost to sexual disease research

L-R: Dr Eric Chow, Prof Christopher Fairley and Dr Catriona Bradshaw
have won NHMRC grants for research programs to control STIs.
Prof Fairley is giving a public lecture on 17 Oct - all welcome! RSVP
by Anne Crawford

Central Clinical School researchers at the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre (MSHC) have been awarded more than $6 million in the latest round of NHMRC grants – funds that will go towards researching programs urgently needed to fight rising levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Professor of Public Health at Monash University, Professor Christopher Fairley AO said rates of STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhoea in Victoria had risen relentlessly over the past 20 years.

“Initially this was in gay men but now cases are occurring in women and cases of congenital syphilis are reappearing for the first time in more than a decade. It’s been very dramatic. When I started at the MSHC in 2001 there were 53 cases of gonorrhoea in women a year; there were 1500 last year,” Professor Fairley said. “There’s potential for gonorrhoea to become resistant to all antibiotics.

“Syphilis actually causes substantial morbidity, blindness and congenital syphilis kills babies,” he said.

“A lot of work and investment needs to go into this area to find control mechanisms for these infections.”

Professor Fairley said the MSHC was thrilled that three of its researchers – Associate Professor Catriona Bradshaw ($2 million), Dr Eric Chow ($1.5 million) and Professor Fairley ($2.5 million) – were awarded NHMRC grants, which would contribute more than $1 million a year over five years towards research programs to control STIs.

Associate Professor Bradshaw will investigate innovative approaches to Improving the treatment and control of Mycoplasma genitalium, an STI ‘superbug’ that is becoming very resistant to antibiotics, and bacterial vaginosis, a common infection associated with premature delivery.

Professor Fairley and Dr Chow will oversee a number of projects Investigating non-condom-based interventions into STIs.

Condom use had declined in Australia in gay men in the context of PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) treatment which is incredibly effective in preventing HIV, he said. New approaches were needed.

“By far the most powerful STI prevention is providing access to health services,” Professor Fairley said. “We’re going to work really hard trying to do something about STI services because they’re simply not getting funded and not keeping up with need.”

The MSHC, in Carlton, was sometimes so full now that it has had to shut its doors for the rest of the day.

“It becomes a vicious cycle – if you can’t treat infections they get passed on to more people and you can’t see them and it gets out of control,” he said. The demand on the service has increased in recent years with the success of Victoria’s international education hub and rising numbers of international students who find accessing GPs difficult.

Studies extending the centre’s landmark finding that gargling with mouthwash could inhibit the growth of the bacteria responsible for pharyngeal gonorrhea will test such factors as the best way to administer the mouthwash (swilling, gargling or using it as a spray to get to the back of the throat); how long the treatment lasts for; and the effect of rolling it out to the target population.

A program of anal self-examination will begin to see if men with syphilis can detect ulcers. Another study will look into optimal vaccination for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus which causes throat and anal cancer.

Professor Fairley will present a public lecture on syphilis next month. For details:

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