The BC Centre for Disease Control has just launched a new cute and clever syphilis awareness featuring historical figures like King Henry VIII, Abe Lincoln and Beethoven shaped as cartoon penises.
The aim is to raise awareness of rising rates of syphilis in the province’s gay and bisexual community and urges residents to get tested for the infectious disease for which cases have doubled in the past ten years.
“Think you don’t have to worry about syphilis anymore? Think again,” reads the campaign statement, under a lineup of famous men-as- penises in history who were afflicted with the disease. “Since 2000, syphilis rates have surged worldwide. In 2015, BC saw the highest rates of syphilis in over 30 years – and we’re on track to beat that record in 2016.”
The CDC says in BC, most syphilis infections are occurring in the gay, queer and bisexual community, with the highest infection rates among younger men (20 to 39 years). Gay men living with HIV represent about half of the cases.
Dr. Jason Wong, physician epidemiologist with the CDC said that the campaign was inspired by the Healthy Penis campaign put out in San Francisco in the 2000s, which involved comic strip penises talking about getting tested for syphilis.
“That was some of the inspiration we had for this, part of the focus-group testing we had,” says Wong to the Now. “It really resonated with the audience we are looking to target. We tried to put humour into it but also still convey a serious message, that syphilis is a real problem.”
Caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, syphilis is commonly spread by sexual contact,producing symptoms such as painless sores on the genitals, rectum or mouth, followed by a rash beginning on the trunk and eventually covering the entire body. If untreated, the disease progresses to a latent stage which can last for years where no symptoms are present. Eventually, syphilis results in damage to the brain, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. The treatment is penicillin, which kills the bacterium and can halt the disease in as little as one injection.
Last year, Vancouver Coastal Health began a syphilis outbreak response as infection rates hit a 30-year high. Nearly 500 cases were reported for 2015, twice that from a decade earlier. The rise in syphilis cases is being seen right across the country and around the world, with the cause not clearly understood. One element involves the cyclical nature of infectious diseases, which are known to fade from populations and then return in regular patterns.
But scientists are also studying the potential links between syphilis and HIV to help explain the increase in infections among the gay and bisexual men. A recent study in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections argues that along with a greater prevalence of engaging in risky sexual behaviour, the gay and bisexual community may be more at risk due to HIV therapy, which may be affecting the way the body reacts to the syphilis bacteria.
“What we’re hypothesizing is it’s altering the immune response … in a way that is increasing susceptibility to the pathogen,” said Caroline Cameron, University of Victoria microbiologist and study co-author, to the CBC. “It warrants further study.”