Travellers who engage in unprotected sex abroad run a high risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease (STD) such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia and herpes as well as HIV and Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C. Because travellers sometimes feel less inhibited when away from home, they are more likely to engage in risky sexual practices. Risk increases with the number of contacts and with the number of sexual partners. Travellers who are sexually active should limit the number of new partners. Some groups have an increased likelihood of acquiring STDs - young men, long-term travellers, men who have sex with men, individuals travelling alone or with partners other than their families, and business travellers. Additionally, international travellers are more likely to have contact with commercial sex workers who have high rates of STDs.
HIV infection, which can lead to AIDS, is now a worldwide problem. The ease of international travel has undoubtedly been a major contributor to the rapid spread of HIV. In 2015 the World Health Organisation estimated that over 36 million adults are living with HIV/AIDS. They also estimate that 40% of people living with HIV infection are unaware that they have it. Sub-Saharan African countries have the highest prevalence currently. In Africa screening for HIV is limited but the problem is enormous. In 2016 the World Health Organisation estimated that 1 in 25 adults in Africa are living with HIV. More than 20% of the general population are infected in a few African countries. Cases have been reported from over 160 countries. The majority of these cases have occurred in developing countries where the main route of transmission is now heterosexual contact, and 50% of cases now occur in females. Sex workers are also at particular risk. For example:
Travellers are estimated to be over 200 times more likely to contract HIV whilst abroad, than at home.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the name of the virus that people catch. HIV can be transmitted sexually, from mother to baby, and from contaminated blood and sharing injection equipment.
AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is caused by HIV. The virus attacks the body's immune system making it unable to fight some diseases. It can take many years from the time of infection until development of symptoms of AIDS if the virus is undetected and untreated - consequently just because someone looks healthy does not mean they are not infected with HIV.
Sitting on toilet seats or Mosquitoes or Coughing and Sneezing or Swimming or Shaking Hands
The following list are of the most common STDs:
Males: discharge, usually thin & clear and painful urination
Females: often none. May have vaginal discharge
Swab or Urine Test
Males: creamy discharge from penis and painful urination
Females: often no symptoms. May have a vaginal discharge.
Swab or Urine Test
Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C
Often none or can fulminate in acute hepatitis which may be fatal.
Painful blisters/ulcers on penis or vagina. Can be transmitted when no ulcers visible.
Swab or Blood Test
Asymptomatic but may lead to full blown AIDS
Primary; chancre (painless ulcer) on penis or vagina.
Secondary: flu like illness with rash. If untreated both can lead to Tertiary syphilis which is fatal.
Blood Test or Swab
Visible warts or vaginal irritation.
HIV, Hepatitis B or C and other STDs are preventable. Abstinence is the only absolute protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Other protective methods include:
International travellers should be aware that some countries serologically screen incoming travellers (primarily those planning extended visits, such as for work or study) and deny entry to people with AIDS and those whose test results indicate infection with HIV. People intending to visit a country for a substantial period or to work or study abroad should be informed of the policies and requirements of that particular country. Information is available from consular officials or on the Internet, try http://hivtravel.org/.
If you have had sexual contacts (even if you have no symptoms) whilst travelling please get a complete check up on your return. These are confidential. Your own G.P., Travel Medicine Centre Perth or a specialised STD clinic can perform this. If you feel you may have been exposed make sure you abstain or practice safe sex on your return to Australia. Remember that HIV, Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C and other STDs have long incubation periods and it is possible to spread the disease before a diagnosis is made. Discussing this problem with your partner at home and then taking precautions can be difficult, but is absolutely necessary to prevent spread of disease to them. Persons with negative lab results will need to be rechecked 12 weeks later for Hepatitis B and HIV, and even longer for hepatitis C.
Updated August 2021.