Syphilis endemic on island

by Chris Griffith
Published June 1995 in Land Rights Queensland


my face


Palm Island's syphilis catastrophe -- involving infection at some time of over half the island's population, including 60 percent of its pregnant women -- demanded a full medical, educational, and economic response, a leading microbiologist has warned.

The Queensland Greens said the figures, which found syphilis in 'hyper- endemic' proportions on the island, showed 'a heinous failure' of state health and education services over many years.

In June, microbiologist Dr Stephen Graves released a study which found syphilis endemic in three Indigenous communities in 1994-95.

At Palm Island, the study found 11 percent of the population currently had syphilis, as did 21 percent of people at Doomadgee, and 17 percent of those at Mornington Island.

This compared to a rate of 0.2 percent in Townsville's population.

Dr Graves said of those tested, only 39 percent of Palm Islanders had never contracted the disease, compared to 92 percent of Townsville's population.

He found the infection rate had decreased marginally since 1993, when 16 percent of islanders were found to have the disease.

He said his Doomadgee and Mornington Island findings involved smaller samples and were less statistically reliable than Palm Island figures.

In his 1994-95 study, Dr Graves found 10.5 percent of the island's pregnant women had active infections, and a staggering 60.5 percent of those women had in the past contracted syphilis.

Dr Graves conducted the study while working as a microbiologist at Townsville General Hospital. He is now director of microbiology at Geelong Hospital in Victoria.

He said it was time the public knew what authorities had known for about 10 years.

He said publicity of the figures in no way reflected poorly on Palm Islanders. Release of the information was a necessary and responsible act in the quest to eradicate syphilis and to save lives.

"No major health problem has ever been contained by people putting the lid on it," he said.

Syphilis, which is transmitted during intercourse, causes a temporary painless soar on the genitals of men and women, but otherwise there are no initial symptoms.

However, left untreated the disease resurfaces years later causing mental and physical disabilities, still births, and death.

Women infected with syphilis can transmit the disease to their children during pregnancy.

But syphilis is easily cured with just one shot of penicillin.

Dr Graves said the most urgent need was for all Palm Island's sexually active young men to have regular annual checkups.

He said the long-term solution was "not predominantly medical", but "educational and economic".

Dr Graves has recommended broad based educational services on the island including health and sex education, the enforcement of compulsory education, and the provision of jobs through the spending of public monies where necessary.

He recommended proactive sexual health services and drug rehabilitation clinics in Aboriginal communities, and the routine screening of sexually-active people.

"The community on Palm Island should consider a mass eradication campaign with penicillin to get syphilis under control.

"There should be research into antibiotics to treat syphilis that don't need to be given by injection, and research into a syphilis vaccine.

"A vaccine will be necessary to totally eradicate syphilis."

The Queensland Greens' candidate for Townsville, Mr Tony Clunies-Ross, said the syphilis epidemic was "the tip of the iceberg", given the widespread poverty on Palm Island.

"Water supplies and sewerage facilities on the island are designed for a population of 1,500 - one third of the current requirement.

"And public housing on Palm Island is in intolerably short supply, with an average of 21-22 people occupying each dwelling."

The chief executive officer of the Palm Island Aboriginal Council, Mr Jeff Warner, said the Queensland Cabinet had adopted a Health Department document last year which recommended one health worker per 250 people in Aboriginal communities - on Palm Island the ratio was still 1:1000.

He said the document recommended training for Aboriginal people to help deliver health services to their communities.

Mr Clunies-Ross said the services recommended in the Cabinet submission "were just not happening" on Palm Island.

"Nobody wants to accept responsibility for the 4,500 people on the island."

He called on the state government to provide immediate emergency relief funding.

Mr Graves said the Northern Regional Health Authority had allocated a sexual health nurse to Palm Island, along with "contact tracers" to interview infected patients so that their sexual partners could be located and treated.

He said improved health services had led to a five percent drop in Palm Island's syphilis rate since 1993 , but syphilis was still endemic on the island.

Incidences of syphilis recorder by Dr Stephen Grimes
Palm Island 1993/TD> 110 16% 341 51% 217 33%
Palm Island 1994-95
Males 8 6% 68 50% 60 44%
Females 34 15% 112 49% 80 36%
Total 42 11% 180 50% 140 39%
Townsville 2 2% 85 7.8% 998 92%
Doomadgee 6 21% 20 69% 3 10%
Mornington Island 4 17% 14 58% 6 25%
Pregnancies 94-95
Palm Island 4 10.5% 23 60.5% 11 29%
Townsville 2 0.3% 56 9.7% 516 90%

Immediate checkups are a must! The microbiologist who exposed the 'hyper-endemic' proportions of syphilis on Palm Island wants all sexually-active young island men to have checkups immediately.

Dr Stephen Graves said many men who contracted syphilis would be totally unaware that they had it. They may be aware of no symptoms and would regard themselves as perfectly healthy.

"All of Palm Island's sexually active young men must have check-ups so syphilis can be beaten for good", he told Land Rights Queensland.

"For both sexes, syphilis begins with a painless sore on the genitals which heals, but that doesn't mean the disease goes away - far from it!

"Over the next three months, the disease spreads throughout the body causing secondary syphilis

"A red rash then occurs on the body, particularly on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

"During this time, the person may have a fever, with muscle aches and pains.

"This usually lasts for only a few weeks. These symptoms then disappear spontaneously, and the disease becomes dormant for many years, in some people for life.

"But that doesn't mean it's gone.

"In particular, women who feel perfectly well can still infect their babies while pregnant, years after contracting the disease.

"Meanwhile, the disease works silently causing damage to may organs, including the heart, the blood vessels, the brain, and the spinal chord.

"Mental and physical disabilities, and death result.

"Babies infected during pregnancy may die before birth, or alternatively have syphilis at birth, or exhibit symptoms of syphilis later in life, for example blindness."

Dr Graves said the disease could be cured with just one penicillin shot - except in its final stages.

He said syphilis knew no racial barriers- it was extremely common in the white community last century.

"In the year 1900, syphilis was the second largest cause of death in the white community after tuberculosis.

"Several popes of yesteryear, England's King Henry VIII, Lenin, and Christopher Columbus all died of syphilis.

"Henry VIII had syphilis as a young man and infected his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

"As a result, she experienced many still births and could not produce a male heir for Henry, who then divorced her.

"This led to the British monarchy's break with the Catholic Church.

"One could argue that without syphilis, there would have been no motive to form the Church of England."