Vancouver, nation see pronounced increase in syphilis

Syphilis is on the rise in Canada — so much so that the demand for medication is too high for local suppliers to keep up.

Pfizer is Canada’s only manufacturer of Bicillin, the best antibiotic to treat syphilis, and is currently so depleted, they don’t anticipate being able to rebound until this month. The shortage has gone on for months, leading Health Canada to reach out to countries such as Australia for supplemental medication.

Vancouver has not been immune to this outbreak. A recent syphilis outbreak amongst gay and bisexual men has left doctors advising young men to get tested. According to Vancouver Coastal Health, 97 percent of syphilis cases they see are present in men, and over 90 percent are men who have sex with other men. The current rate of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) is the highest it’s been in 30 years, with nearly 500 cases reported in 2015.

This is in line with the rest of Canada, where the average number of cases jumped from less than one in 100,000 to over six in 2013, which gives a jump of nearly 700 percent over the 15-year span.

Syphilis is a common bacterial infection transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse with someone who has the infection. It can also be transmitted through the sharing of needles, or through childbirth. Although it sometimes exhibits no symptoms whatsoever, having syphilis can increase the risk of contracting HIV. As well, syphilis can have serious long-term effects, such as blindness, bone pain, neurological issues, and sometimes death.

Syphilis can remain dormant in the body for several years without showing symptoms. However, during the dormant stage, it is still possible to transmit the infection, which is why getting tested is so crucial. 

Once tested, early-stage syphilis can be cured through the use of penicillin or other antibiotics.

In February, Vancouver Coastal Health collaborated with other sex-positive health organizations such as the BC Centre for Disease Control YouthCO and Health Initiative for Men, to create an LGTBQ-friendly marketing campaign. The ads went up on public transit, in newspapers, and on dating websites in February, when the VCH announced a formal outbreak response. 

BC and Canada aren’t the only areas seeing a spike in the infection. Syphilis and gonorrhea are both spiking in the UK due to a lack of funding for STI testing resources. This crisis is also disproportionately affecting men who have sex with other men, as well as lower-income individuals who don’t always have access to the health resources they need.

According to Vancouver Coastal Health, men who have sex with men should get tested for syphilis every three to six months, and talk to their doctor if any unusual skin irritations occur around their genitals.