Vancouver-area syphilis rates are at epidemic proportions, health officials say, and they’re urging gay and bisexual men to get tested immediately.
Vancouver Coastal Health, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, and several community agencies that work with gay and bisexual men unveiled a campaign Monday to fight the spread of the disease.
Dr. Réka Gustafson, medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal, said there has been a significant increase in syphilis infections over the last 18 months and levels are now at about a 30-year high.
“If you’re a sexually active gay or bisexual man in our community, you need to be tested for syphilis,” she said in an interview. “The reason to get tested is that even though symptoms might be very minor, they can lead to significant complications, as significant as neurological impairment, visual loss, even death.”
There were 372 reported cases of syphilis in B.C. last year. That’s compared to 190 in 2011, and 154 in 2010.
Of the 372 cases last year, Dr. Gustafson said 257 were in the city of Vancouver.
That number has already been passed this year – Dr. Gustafson said 316 cases had been reported in Vancouver by the end of September. She said last year’s provincial total will also be topped.
She said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the increase.
“It’s part of a continent-wide increase. We do know that these cycles occur. … It’s a sexually transmitted infection and when it enters a community it can spread quite rapidly. Why now? Why in the last 18 months rather than before that? I’m not sure anybody’s actually certain.”
What’s important, Dr. Gustafson said, is taking steps to reach those individuals at risk.
“It’s curable. It’s curable with ordinary, old-fashioned antibiotics. … It’s easy to get tested and it’s easy to get treated,” she said.
Health Canada says syphilis cases were rare during the 1990s. However, four times as many cases were reported in 2002 as in 1997, and the number of infections has continued to climb.
Statistics show that in 2010 there were more than 1,750 cases in Canada, up from 177 in 1993.
The new campaign, which includes posters and aims to establish a social-media presence, asks what’s trending in Vancouver. Neon tank tops, French bulldogs, and syphilis, one of the posters says.
Jody Jollimore, program manager at Health Initiative for Men, one of the community groups that helped plan the campaign, described it as trendy.
He said his group wants men to know syphilis is at a 30-year high, but doesn’t want to sound alarmist. He said the fact more cases have been recorded indicates men have been willing to get tested.
But some groups can be difficult to get into testing, he said, including young, gay men.
“We’re talking about hashtags and Twitter, so we’re hoping it will appeal to as many people as possible,” Mr. Jollimore said in an interview.
Syphilis is highly contagious and spreads primarily through sexual activity.
Glenn Doupe, outreach team leader at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s clinic prevention service, wrote in a statement that people can have the disease and simply not know it.
BCCDC and Vancouver Coastal say men who are sexually active with other men should be tested every three to six months.
With a report from The Canadian Press