No dicking around: B.C. gets serious about syphilis outbreak, with humour

B.C. Centre for Disease Control's new campaign features penis-shaped characters you might recognize

Historic people portrayed in the Syphistory campaign launched in January by BC Centre for Disease Control and Provincial Health Services Authority.

Syphilis is definitely not history in B.C.

So says the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in its new “Syphistory” campaign – one that features some rather famous people drawn to look like penises.

The cartoon characters add humour to a serious campaign that aims to educate B.C. residents – especially gay and bisexual men – and encourage them to get tested for the STI, or sexually transmitted infection.

The campaign, launched on Jan. 30, features phallic characters that resemble Napoleon, Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible, Abraham Lincoln and others.

“Henry VIII may be history, but syphilis is not,” reads the poster on the campaign website, Syphistory.ca.

Dr. Jason Wong, a physician epidemiologist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the campaign echoes a popular Healthy Penis campaign launched in San Francisco about a decade ago.

“That was some of the inspiration we had for this, part of the focus-group testing we had,” Wong told 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.”

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

“Syphilis has a long history,” the Syphistory website notes. “The earliest outbreak was recorded in 1494! Syphilis raged across Europe and South America during the 16th century. And during World War I, syphilis was the 2nd most common reason for soldiers missing duty.

Writer Leo Tolstoy, gangster Al Capone and artist Vincent Van Gogh are some famous people in history who had syphilis, according to the website: “At the turn of the 20th century, it was estimated that up to 1 in 10 men in Western countries had syphilis. But the use of penicillin as a cure in the 1940’s started to win the war against syphilis. As recently as 1999, there were only a handful of cases reported and we thought syphilis could be eliminated in Canada.”

But things have changed in recent years, prompting health officials to launch the Syphistory website and campaign, which also involves the Provincial Health Services Authority.

“Think you don’t have to worry about syphilis anymore? Think again,” the website states. “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.

“In B.C., most syphilis infections are in gay, queer, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (cis and trans). The highest infection rates are among younger men (20-39 years). And about half of all infections are in gay men who are also living with HIV. Syphilis and HIV do not play well together – not only can syphilis increase your chances of getting or passing HIV, but HIV can also increase the risk of complications due to syphilis.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about syphilis and ways to protect yourself from infection.

For those seeking testing, a “Clinic Finder” link on the website includes several clinics in Surrey.

“The only way to know if you have syphilis is to get tested,” says the website. “Syphilis testing is usually done with a blood test. However, it may take up to 3 months before syphilis can be detected by the blood test. So, if you think you have been exposed to syphilis in the last 3 months, you need to get tested and treated.

“Syphilis is curable. The best treatment for syphilis is a penicillin injection. Depending on the stage of infection, it can take up to 3 injections of penicillin to cure syphilis. Intravenous penicillin for 10 to 14 days is needed to cure neurosyphilis.”

tom.zillich@thenownewspaper.com