Syphilis outbreak not expected to slow down

Education is only the first step” against record number of infections

Local health authorities are continuing the fight to control the syphilis outbreak in Winnipeg.

There have been 60 syphilis cases in Winnipeg in the first 10 months of this year. That number is up from 40 cases at the same time in 2013. 

According to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA), the number of cases isn’t expected to decline in the near future. Currently, syphilis is reportedly mostly being spread through male-to-male transmission and there is concern of it spreading into the heterosexual community. 

“We worry that it will cross over [to the heterosexual community] because with syphilis specifically, if the infection is passed from mother to newborn, that can be a very serious illness, and much more difficult to treat,” says Dr. Joss Reimer, medical officer for the WRHA, noting a recent case of this happening in Alberta. 

Reimer confirms social media is a contributing factor to the spread of infection. She says that patients who test positive are given an in-depth questionnaire. 

“We ask them a lot of questions, such as where did you meet your partner, and about 50 per cent of people are telling us they met them online or on a phone app,” Reimer says. 

Jared Star, the youth programs co-ordinator at the Rainbow Resource Centre, says there are several reasons why social media has contributed to the outbreak. 

“I think that there’s a cultural shift towards social media and online hook-ups… without targeted, preventative approaches to education that are specific to the venue in which it’s occurring, there’s going to be an increase in cases,” Star says. 

“There hasn’t been a behavioural based campaign in Winnipeg that honours the fun and sexy parts of being a gay and bisexual person, and that educates around how to behave safely.”

Star notes that there are examples of effective campaigns throughout Canada using language and cultural references that are relevant to the LGBT* community. 

The WRHA is now working with social media and “hook-up” sites by placing advertisements letting users know about the syphilis outbreak and to encourage safer sex practices. 

“Education is always the first step in any health behaviour change,” Reimer says, “but it really is only the first step. We know we need to improve our services and make sure that patients aren’t faced with stigma or challenges.” 

However, Star says there is a gap in educational material available to people who identify as LGBT*. 

“Youth who are maybe questioning their sexual orientation lack a lot of support…[and] accurate sex-ed for the kind of sex that they may be having is not happening in the school system,” Star says, adding that the Rainbow Resource Centre offers regular drop-in session for LGBT* youth which is essentially “queer sex ed.” 

“We talk about things like Grindr and Scruff,” Star says. “We operate from a harm reduction philosophy… you’re going to hook up with people, so here’s how you do it safely.” 

For those faced with the prospect of being tested or receiving treatment, the process is relatively simple. Reimer says there are a number of free clinics where tests can be done, all of which are supplied with medication that can be distributed on-site. The treatment is free, and the WRHA takes on the role of contacting anyone who’s been in contact with a syphilis-positive patient. 

For more information and a list of clinics, please visit wrha.mb.ca/healthinfo/a-z/syphilis.

Published in Volume 69, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 12, 2014)

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