29 June 2020

The 2020 Commonwealth Health Minister's Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research has been awarded to Associate Professor Eric Chow of Monash University. The award has been presented each year since 2000 and recognises the top-ranked recipient of a National Health and Medical Research Council Investigator Grant in the Emerging Leadership Level 2 category from the previous year’s application round. 

Associate Professor Chow received the NHMRC Peter Doherty Investigator Grant Award (Emerging Leadership) at this years’ NHMRC Research Excellence Awards. His research aims to improve treatment, prevention and control of sexually transmitted infections (STI), with a particular interest in gonorrhoea, syphilis and human papillomavirus (HPV). 

A/Professor Chow said that STIs are rising at an alarming rate in Australia, and it is disproportionally affecting gay and bisexual men.

“We are currently facing an emerging situation with the rise of gonorrhoea as the current notification rate is similar to the 1980s – the time before the HIV/AIDS epidemic,”

Over the last decade, the infectious syphilis notification rate increased by 366% (from 5 per 100,000 in 2010 to 23.3 per 100,000 in 2019) and the infectious syphilis notification rate increased by 192% (46.9 per 100,000 in 2010 to 137.1 per 100,000 in 2019).1

1 Australian Government Department of Health. National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System http://www9.health.gov.au/cda/source/cda-index.cfm

“Gonorrhoea and syphilis have been relatively uncommon among heterosexuals since the 1980s but worryingly both infections have re-emerged among heterosexuals, including the re-emergence of congenital syphilis which can cause fetal and infant deaths,”

A/Professor Chow is currently conducting clinical trials to examine whether antiseptic mouthwash could be used as a novel treatment and preventive strategy for gonorrhoea.

“The emergence of antibiotic resistance making some STIs such as gonorrhoea difficult to treat,” A/Professor Chow said.

It has been commonly understood that gonorrhoea is mainly passed on by condomless sex and his work has revealed that saliva can carry infectious gonorrhoea, suggesting saliva can act as a transport medium for gonorrhoea transmission.

A/Professor Chow has discovered that just kissing is the leading risk factor for throat gonorrhoea, which has never been recognised in the 100 years since the bacteria was identified.

“My discovery has completely changed the way how we thought gonorrhoea is transmitted,”

“My previous work has shown that antiseptic mouthwash could be a potential preventive strategy for throat gonorrhoea and if mouthwash is shown to be effective, we can reduce the use of antibiotics in the era of multidrug resistance,”

The NHMRC Investigator Grant provides A/Professor Chow and his team numerous opportunities in developing new collaborations, designing and conducting clinical and epidemiological studies, testing and implementing new interventions in the field of sexual health.

“I feel honoured to be one of the researchers to receive this prestigious award from the NHMRC,”

“Our work has the potential to reduce the burden of sexually transmitted infections and also to improve the lives of affected individuals.”

With the impact of COVID-19 over the past few months, A/Professor Chow and his team believe the lockdown during the pandemic may have some impact on sex life and relationship among Australians.

“Some individuals may change their sexual practices during this lockdown period and we are currently monitoring how it impacts on HIV and STI diagnoses as well as sexual practices among Australians,”

“My research vision for the next five years is to halt the rapidly rising rates of STI in Australia by using a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the transmission dynamics of STI and exploring novel interventions for STI prevention and control,”

“I aim to translate the findings from this research into clinical practice for STI management, and hence lead to potential changes in national and international guidelines. Our work has the potential to reduce the burden of STI and also to improve the lives of affected individuals.” A/Professor Chow said.

Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: Professor Eric Chow

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