Condoms alone can’t stop syphilis outbreak
(CARMINE MARINELLI/ QMI AGENCY)
Vancouver Coastal Health is asking the public, particularly gay men, to be tested for syphilis as the city is experiencing its highest numbers of infections in 30 years.
More than 370 cases of the possibly fatal illness were reported in B.C. last year and 80% were in the Vancouver region.
VCH’s Dr. Reka Gustafson said “men who have sex with men” are especially vulnerable and should be tested numerous times annually.
“The latest spike is actually part of a North America-wide increase in incidents of syphilis,” she said. “Perhaps, due to a lack of awareness, people are presenting late with complications of syphilis.”
Gustafson said the most serious complications are neurological and can even render people blind if not caught in time. If caught early, however, it can be easily treated with penicillin.
While inconsistent condom use does increase the risk of contracting infection, experts said using protection, such as prophylactics, isn’t a guaranteed solution.
Wayne Robert is the executive director of the Health Initiative for Men, a group aimed at improving the health of gay men.
Despite a high use of condoms by gay men, he said they suffer a high infection rate because the community is closely knit so such infections move quickly through it.
“Condoms are less effective at preventing syphilis than they are at preventing, for instance, HIV,” Robert said. “Syphilis can be passed on through contact by skin contact and contact with infected areas, so there doesn’t necessarily have to be the exchange of bodily fluids.”
Gustafson adds a large problem is the early warning signs of the illness can imitate other conditions, or go away on their own, so sufferers disregard them.
She said the best way to avoid the more severe effects of the infection once it is more advanced is to get tested every three to six months.