Vancouver health officials are reporting a large increase in syphilis cases in 2015, prompting call from officials to urge gay men to get regularly tested as syphilis rates continue to rise.

British Columbia Image/EOZyo
British Columbia

“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 (VCH), 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.

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.

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, transit ads, and ads in newspapers and on dating websites.

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.