“Syphilis rates are at their highest in 30 years in British Columbia. In 2015, nearly 500 cases of infectious syphilis were reported in Vancouver Coastal Health, more than double the yearly cases reported a decade ago,” says Dr. Réka Gustafson, medical health officer with VCH.
“Because new infections continue to climb, we have initiated a formal outbreak response.”
By calling an outbreak response, VCH is stepping up its efforts by working directly with physicians and community groups to increase testing and promote awareness of the steps everyone can take to prevent, diagnose and treat syphilis.
VCH is collaborating with Positive Living BC, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), YouthCO and Health Initiative for Men (HIM) to create a bold marketing campaign featuring gay sex-positive imagery. The campaign launches February 14, 2016, and includes posters, a webpage (www.checkhimout.ca/syphilis
), transit ads, and ads in newspapers and on dating websites.
Ninety-seven per cent of syphilis diagnoses are male and over 90 per cent identify as gay, bisexual, or men who have sex with men (MSM). 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.
Syphilis is being diagnosed both among men living with HIV and those who are not. And, having syphilis increases the risk of getting HIV infection.
“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,” explains 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.”
Syphilis is a contagious infection spread primarily by sexual activity—whether it’s oral, vaginal or anal sex. People with syphilis may not know they have it because they may not have symptoms. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics but if left untreated, it can lead to complications such as blindness, hearing loss, deep bone pain and neurological problems, all of which can happen early or late in the course of infection. 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
VCH is responsible for the delivery of $3.4 billion in community, hospital and residential care to more than one million people in communities including Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, Sea to Sky corridor, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.
Positive Living BC is dedicated to empowering persons living with HIV/AIDS through mutual support and collective action. Uniquely among major agencies in Canada, the Positive Living BC Board of Directors is composed entirely of HIV positive members. With a membership of more than 5,700 HIV positive members and a proud history spanning three decades, Positive Living BC is Western Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS service organization and an established leader in the HIV/AIDS movement.
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Director of Communications
Positive Living BC
Vancouver Coastal Health