Syphilis: Forgotten but not gone

By Chris Ferguson

Student peruses resource center material on syphilis. Photo credit: Teghan Beaudette

How much do you know about syphilis? This question was posed to Carleton University students: their main answer, “it’s curable.”
This affirmation aside, the fact that a disease is curable shouldn’t mean we don’t need to worry about it.

If you took a sexual education class, you probably learned about syphilis along with a whole host of other sexually transmitted infections. And while it is curable, there are consequences if it is left untreated for long periods of time.

“It’s not fun,” said Scarlett, who didn’t want her last name used. If left untreated, syphilis leads to a host of problems including heart disease, dementia and eventually, death.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carleton students and others contacted by Hartwell’s didn’t want their names printed anywhere near a sexually-transmitted infection, even one they recognized to be relatively benign.
“I don’t tend to worry about the ones you can cure with one shot,” said one student who said he always practices safer sex on one night stands, but not if he knows his partner well. He and others didn’t know that syphilis can spread much more easily than HIV.

According to a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, in 1996 the elimination of syphilis seemed an “imminent goal.” However, about 70 cases were reported in Ottawa last year, up from eight cases in 2001, according to Barry Deeprose, who co-chairs the local Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative. Almost all of these cases were in the gay community.

Deeprose says, as with most viruses, it’s hard to know where syphilis came from, but it seems that syphilis has survived from the few remaining cases in the mid-1990s to rise again. As for affecting men who have sex with men, he says it is “the sheer number of contacts.” It’s well-known that “gay men tend to be pretty sexually active.”

Deeprose helped found GayZone, an STI-testing clinic specifically for gay men. It’s an alternative to the crowded general clinic on Clarence Street, where Deeprose says wait times can sometimes go up to three hours. The clinic, which Deeprose says looks like an espresso bar, runs out of the Centretown Community Health Centre every Thursday from 5:00 to 8:00 PM.

Deeprose explained that syphilis is passed through contact with small, painless sores that can appear anywhere on the body. That means people can easily have syphilis without knowing it and pass it on. Using condoms does not completely prevent against the spread of sexually transmitted disease, which is why Deeprose says it’s irrelevant how may sexual partners a person has. What’s important is that people get tested every three months, only that can help contain the spread of syphilis.

And while syphilis is curable with antibiotics, it’s still a cause for concern. Having syphilis makes you two to five times more likely to contract HIV. Deeprose says GayZone saw 350 men in the last year and hopes to increase the awareness of its existence while decreasing the incidence of syphilis and other STIs in the Ottawa area.
Ignorance is no excuse, Hartwell’s reminds you to get tested.

For more information on GayZone, click here.

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