Public health officials are renewing their call for men who have sex with men to get tested for syphilis as 2013 figures show the number of cases has surpassed the 2012 rate, which was already the highest in decades.

Treponema pallidum spirochete/CDC

“In 2012, syphilis rates in the Lower Mainland were at their highest in 30 years, and last year they were even higher. In 2013, 561 new cases were reported in B.C. and 86 per cent of those were diagnosed in Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH),” says Dr. Réka Gustafson, medical health officer with VCH. “We’re encouraging men who have sex with men to become more aware about syphilis, practice safer sex, and to incorporate regular testing into their health care.”

An awareness campaign has helped increase testing rates by 20 per cent in 2013 compared to the year before. More than 48,000 men were tested in Vancouver in 2013. A similar campaign was launched this summer to encourage more men to get tested. The campaign uses trending topics in social media to discuss the rising rates and includes posters and a webpage at

“We’re grateful to have partnerships with agencies that work directly with gay and bisexual men,” says Chris Buchner, regional director of prevention, VCH. “With help from organizations including Qmunity, YouthCO, Health Initiative for Men (HIM), Positive Living B.C., family doctors, and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, we’re hoping to engage people with a respectful and relevant message, and encourage them to test for syphilis regularly.”

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 a person to infection.

In 2013, the majority of all diagnosed cases in VCH were picked up through blood testing many weeks after people showed initial symptoms, when the infection became latent with no symptoms. Common early symptoms of syphilis include painless ulcers or sores resembling bug bites on genitalia, rashes on the palms and soles, fever, swollen lymph glands and weight loss. If left untreated, these symptoms disappear and syphilis then enters an asymptomatic or latent stage which can eventually lead to permanent blindness, hearing loss, deep bone pain and neurological problems. Severe cases of the disease can be fatal.

Pregnant women can also pass syphilis to an unborn child resulting in stillbirth, pre-term birth and abnormalities in the baby.

Syphilis also increases the risk of getting HIV; in fact, there are high rates of syphilis among people who are HIV positive. In VCH, 69 per cent of all syphilis cases are also HIV positive.