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Parody ads take syphilis awareness in Alberta seriously

It was a cheeky ad campaign that raised eyebrows – as well as awareness about sexually transmitted diseases – but for health officials, Alberta's unconventional attempt to curb the spread of syphilis can be summed up more simply: a success.

There has been a jump in the number of people visiting health clinics to be tested for the once-ancient scourge that is now on the upsurge, and a website designed to parody a popular online dating site is attracting tens of thousands of visitors from across the country and around the world.

"It was a bold, unconventional approach in public awareness," said Micky Elabdi, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health and Wellness, who noted that the campaign won both fans and detractors.

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"If a public awareness campaign doesn't attract attention and nobody's talking about it, it's a failure," she added.

The Alberta government is currently evaluating its $2-million campaign, which was part of a larger $14-million multi-year action plan to get a handle on a variety of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but officials say early data point to success.

Between May 16, when the campaign launched, and June 28, the province's STI clinics have had a 17 per cent increase – or 1,139 more people – in visits compared to the same period a year earlier. The uptick in interest has continued through the summer. Edmonton's STI clinic is so busy that clients can no longer book appointments, they are simply told to walk in and wait.

"Clinic staff said people were talking about the campaign without being prompted," Ms. Elabdi said. " 'I've seen the ads. I'm here to be tested.' "

From June 6 to July 12, there have been about 110,000 visits – 95,837 of them unique – to, a site that pokes fun at the dating site, but offers a serious message. It displays profiles of eligible singles infected with varying stages of syphilis and provides information about the disease.

"Finally, a dating site that understands that screwing around is cool and safe sex is not," a mock user writes on the site.

Syphilis can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex. It causes painless sores and occasional rashes throughout the body. It is curable, but it can cause long-term complications and increases a person's chance of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

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Alberta has had the unenviable title of infection capital of Canada (not including the territories) since rates first spiked in 2003. The rate of infection in 2009 (the latest figures available) was 7.3 per 100,000 residents compared with five cases per 100,000 people in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Some other alarming statistics have also emerged.

As of March 31, 25 babies had been born in Alberta with congenital syphilis since 2005 and nine of those infants have died, according to the province.

Alberta's chief medical officer has blamed the migration of young people to the booming province for the booming numbers, as well as transient workers who reside in isolated areas such as Fort McMurray's oil sands, where infection rates are the highest.

Syphilis also tends to be spread among those involved in prostitution, drug use, mothers who don't receive prenatal care, aboriginal women and gay men.

The disease is making a comeback right across the country.

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Canada had 1,683 confirmed cases of syphilis in 2009, the overwhelming majority among males. That compares to just 177 cases in 1993.

Ms. Elabdi said that in addition to all the media attention the campaign received, it also attracted the interest of other public health agencies.

The Ontario government is looking at Alberta's approach.

The sexual health team at Toronto Public Health, one of 36 public health units in Ontario, said Alberta's campaign looks "encouraging" and officials are keen to see the results.

"We would not necessarily adopt a similar campaign in Toronto because we would base any campaign on input from community stakeholders," said Rishma Govani, a spokeswoman with Toronto Public Health.

Meanwhile, officials in Ontario's biggest city are working on a syphilis and HIV testing blitz slated to start this fall and run through the winter that will include a public awareness campaign. The agency, along with the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the province, has already issued a B-movie-style poster titled "Attack of the Cursed Syphilis."

Critics in Alberta blamed the government in part for the STI outbreak because of its past dismissals of infectious disease experts and delaying a strategy to cope with the problem.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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