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Infectious syphilis rates in Vancouver at epidemic proportions: BCCDC

Syphilis rates among men who have sex with men are at "their highest rates in 30 years in the Lower Mainland," according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

In a statement today, the BCCDC urged sexually active gay and bisexual men to get regular testing for the disease every three months:

"Syphilis rates are at their highest in 30 years in the Lower Mainland. In 2012, 371 cases were reported in BC and 80 per cent of those were diagnosed in Vancouver Coastal Health," says Dr. Réka Gustafson, medical health officer with VCH. "We're encouraging men who have sex with men to become more aware about syphilis and to incorporate regular testing into their health care routine."

Syphilis is a highly contagious disease spread primarily by sexual activity—whether it's oral, vaginal or anal sex. Just being in close contact with an infected person's genitals, mouth or rectum is enough to expose you to infection.

In 2012, half of all diagnosed cases in VCH were picked up through blood testing in the early, asymptomatic stage of the disease. Syphilis also increases the risk of getting HIV; in fact, there are high rates of syphilis among people who are HIV positive. In VCH, 60 per cent of all syphilis cases are also HIV positive.

According to Dr. Rich Lester, medical head of the BCCDC's Sexually Transmitted Infections/HIV division, these statistics make it that much more urgent for people to get tested regularly and to become more knowledgeable about safe sex.

"A lot of people believe that just because they performed oral sex on their partner they’re practicing 'safe sex.' But syphilis spreads easily through any form of sexual contact,” he says. "On top of that, syphilis may have no symptoms in the early stages and whatever symptoms do appear later on are often mistaken for other diseases."

Common symptoms of syphilis include sores resembling bug bites, rashes on the palms and soles, fever, swollen lymph glands and weight loss. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to permanent blindness, hearing loss, deep bone pain and neurological problems, all of which can happen early or late in the course of infection. Severe cases of the disease can even be fatal. Pregnant women can also pass syphilis to an unborn child resulting in stillbirth, pre-term birth and abnormalities in the baby.

Geoff Ford, a nurse educator with VCH’s STOP HIV Outreach Team, says regular syphilis testing doesn’t have to be onerous. "Whether it's at your doctor's office, community health clinic, mobile testing clinic or even clinics available in local bath houses, there are a lot of convenient options available," he says. "Catching the disease early and treating it with antibiotics is far easier than the consequences of syphilis when it's too late."

VCH and BCCDC recommend that men who are sexually active with other men get tested every three to six months, and visit your doctor if you have sores, bumps, a rash, blisters or warts on or around your genitals or anal area. Also, practice safe sex by always using a condom. To locate the nearest testing clinic, access the clinic finder at

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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