Syphilis rates are at their highest in 30 years in B.C., prompting Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to initiate a “formal outbreak response.”
VCH is particularly urging gay men to get tested regularly as 97 per cent of syphilis diagnoses are male and more than 90 per cent identify as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men. While syphilis rates have increased in all age groups, the largest increase is among 20 to 24-year-olds, marking a shift to younger men.
“In 2015, nearly 500 cases of infectious syphilis were reported in Vancouver Coastal Health, more than double the yearly cases reported a decade ago,” said Dr. Réka Gustafson, medical health officer with VCH.
VCH is now collaborating with Positive Living BC, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), YouthCO and Health Initiative for Men (HIM) to create a campaign featuring gay sex-positive imagery.
VCH says having syphilis increases the risk of getting HIV infection and it is being diagnosed among men who are both living with and without HIV.
“Given that Positive Living BC’s more than 5,700 members are living with HIV, I am especially concerned about how the outbreak impacts health and wellness among my peers in the MSM community,” said Valerie Nicholson, chair, Positive Living BC. “We are hard at work to ensure our members and their partners are more aware than ever about the current syphilis epidemic. We are also encouraging our members to incorporate syphilis testing into their regularly scheduled HIV blood-work, which usually occurs every three months.”
People with syphilis may not know they have it because they may not have symptoms. It it spread primarily by sexual activity, whether it’s oral, vaginal or anal sex and can be cured with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can lead to complications such as blindness, hearing loss, deep bone pain and neurological problems. Severe cases can be fatal.
VCH and the BCCDC recommend that men who have sex with men get tested every three to six months, and visit their healthcare provider if they have sores, bumps, a rash, blisters or warts on or around their genitals or anal area. Using condoms is also recommended. To locate the nearest testing clinic or get tested online, visit www.smartsexresource.com and/or getcheckedonline.com.