VANCOUVER, June 10, 2013 ( – Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) have issued a warning that syphilis infections in homosexual and bisexual men have soared to their highest levels in more than 30 years in the Vancouver area. 

According to the warning, 2012 saw 371 new cases of syphilis reported in British Columbia. Eighty percent of those cases were diagnosed in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, which stretches from Metro Vancouver northward along the coast to Bella Coola, and were confined almost entirely to the male homosexual community.

According to VCH's syphilis infection records, the disease was almost non-existent in the early 1990s, with only 3 infections, mostly associated with female prostitutes, reported in 1993. By 1997 the number of cases rose to 22, and then exploded as the disease shifted to the male homosexual community in the early 2000s.


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According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, outbreaks of syphilis in BC are predominantly among men, and have followed the national trend. Across the nation there has been a 870% increase in syphilis in men between 1999 and 2008. 

“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,” said Dr. Réka Gustafson, medical health officer with VCH. 

The advisory warned that the highly contagious disease can be spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex, and that just being in close contact with an infected person’s genitals, mouth or rectum can result in infection. 

Common symptoms of syphilis include sores resembling bug bites, rashes on the palms and soles, fever, swollen lymph glands and weight loss. 

Dr. Gustafson warned that if left untreated, syphilis can result in permanent blindness, hearing loss, deep bone pain, heart disorders, nervous system problems, neurological problems, and even death, which can occur anywhere in the early to late stages of infection. 

The health advisory noted that syphilis also increases the risk of HIV infection. In the VCH region, the report said 60 percent of syphilis cases are also HIV positive. 

Dr. Rich Lester, medical head of the BCCDC’s Sexually Transmitted Infections/HIV division, cautioned that the symptoms of syphilis can be mistaken for other diseases, and that a belief in the practice of “safe sex” can be fatal. 

“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,” Lester said. “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.” 

“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,” the syphilis epidemic warning stated. “Also, practice safe sex by always using a condom.” 

Peter Saunders, CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organization of Christian doctors and medical students, said in a recent blog posting that the usual suggestions, by most public health services, of ways to “reduce risk” of getting sexually transmitted diseases always fail to mention the most effective method. 

“So let me say it,” Saunders wrote. 

“If you want not just to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections but actually to eliminate it altogether, then marry a virgin and stay faithful to him or her ‘as long as you both shall live’. It’s amazingly effective.”