Syphilis is the sexually-transmitted infection (STI) you’re most likely to find in history books. For hundreds of years, syphilis affected kings, poets and everyone in between. The long-term consequences of untreated syphilis were serious—deafness, mental and heart problems, even death.
Syphilis is one of the most contagious STIs and it’s spread mainly through unprotected sex. Coming into contact with a syphilis sore presents the biggest risk of infection, which means it can also spread through kissing if there’s a sore in the mouth.
Syphilis can be tricky for guys to spot. There might be sores around the infected area but they might not be painful and may come and go on their own. Some people who have syphilis don’t get sores or don’t see them because they’re inside the body. Symptoms could also disappear entirely until flu-like symptoms show up a couple months later.
In the last couple of decades, syphilis has been making a comeback in Canada and around the world. The bad news is that, yes, it can still cause dementia and death if left untreated for a very long time.
The good news is that today it’s easier than ever to get tested and treated; a simple blood test at your health care provider’s office or a walk-in clinic can diagnose syphilis. If you test positive, syphilis is totally curable with antibiotics.
Last September, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) sounded the alarm that the number of new syphilis cases in a month had doubled from two to four cases. This past March, the number of new cases hit twelve. That’s an increase of 600 per cent above average and it’s also the highest number of new cases reported in a one-month period since the mid-1980s.
This most recent increase in new cases of syphilis has been discovered only in men—primarily among those identifying as gay or bisexual in the Winnipeg region. Many of these men are meeting their sex partners online or on a phone app. Others are meeting in a bathhouse or at a bar.
In response to the outbreak, the WRHA launched a simple campaign: Syphilis! For Real Winnipeg/Get Tested. The blue and gold ads appeared over the month of March on Grindr, Squirt, Facebook and on several websites. The ads are linked to a page providing additional information on syphilis as well as locations to get tested.
Our bottom line is this: get informed, practice safer sex (using condoms) and get tested regularly. You should also tell your friends and lovers. For more information, visit www.syphilismb.com.
–Dr. Pierre Plourde is a medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.