Backpackers in Australia are a sexual health risk

Backpacker AustraliaYoung people, especially Brits, famously head to Australia in their droves in search of travel, adventure, and, crucially, some hot weather.  In 2009-09, 560,105 international backpackers visited Australia, representing 10.9% of all international visitors.

It seems that backpackers in Oz aren’t just looking for fun and sun though – according to a new study they’re also looking for flings, and are bringing sexually transmitted diseases with them.

Research published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections has found that international backpackers in Sydney had a higher number of sexual partners and drunk more alcohol than native Australians. Backpackers also had higher rates of chlamydia and more previous sexually transmitted infections than locals.

The authors of this study retrospectively looked through the medical records at the Sydney Sexual Health Centre and identified 5,702 backpackers – people who had been born outside of Australia and been in the country for less than two years – and 7256 comparison patients – natives or people who had lived in the country for longer than 2 years. The average age of the backpacker group was 25 and almost half had come from the UK.

Backpackers were twice as likely to report drinking alcohol at hazardous levels than were comparison patients. More than a quarter (27%) of female backpackers reported drinking more than 17.5 units of alcohol a week, equivalent to about eight glasses of wine, whereas only 14% of comparison women drank at this level. A total of 17% of male backpackers drank more than 35 units of alcohol a week, roughly 15 pints of beer, compared with 5% of comparison men.

About 40% of backpackers reported having had two or more sexual partners in the previous 3 months, compared with 30% of comparison patients.  Interestingly, condom use was low in both the backpacker group and the comparison group: two thirds of each group reported having had unprotected sex.

When it came to rates of sexually transmitted infections, backpackers were more likely to be diagnosed with chlamydia (7% vs 5%) and have a history of sexually transmitted infections (15% vs 10%).  However, locals were more likely to have genital warts.

The authors point out the public health implications of their findings – international backpackers are a potential risk population for either acquiring sexually transmitted diseases or transmitting them to other travellers or local residents.  “Although we could not determine the extent of the risk of transmission to local residents from our study,” they say, “it has been demonstrated that being born overseas or having a partner from overseas was a risk factor for chlamydia infection in Sydney women.”

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McNulty A et al. (2010) The behaviour and sexual health of young international travellers (backpackers) in Australia. Sexually Transmitted Infections DOI: 10.1136/sti.2009.038737

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