Health officials warn syphilis epidemic among B.C. men who have sex with men

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      Vancouver Coastal Health and the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control issued a warning on June 6 about a syphilis epidemic that has hit the Lower Mainland.

      Syphilis rates have soared to their highest levels in 30 years, according to VCH medical health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson. In 2012, 371 cases were reported in B.C. and 80 percent were diagnosed in the  Vancouver Coastal Health region.

      Health officials are urging men who have sex with men, including gay, bisexual, bicurious, transgender, and men who identify as straight, to get regularly tested every three months.

      The highly contagious disease can be spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Contact with a person's genitals, mouth or rectum can result in infection.

      Syphilis also increases the risk of contracting HIV. In the VCH region, 60 percent of syphilis cases are also HIV positive.

      Common symptoms include:

      • sores resembling bug bites
      • rashes on palms and soles
      • fever
      • swollen lymph glands
      • weight loss

      If you have sores, bumps, a rash, blisters, or warts on or around your genitals or anal area, health officials recommend visiting your doctor. However, syphilis, which usually has three clinical stages, may also be latent, without any overt signs or symptoms manifesting.

      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.

      Pregnant women can also transmit the infection on to an unborn child.

      If detected, it can be treated with antibiotics.

      In the 1990s, syphilis was primarily associated with the heterosexual sex trade. The disease shifted to the MSM demographic in the early 2000s.

      For information about getting tested, contact your doctor, or visit the Smart Sex Resource or Health Initiative for Men websites.

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