An outbreak of syphilis among California porn performers is perhaps not surprising, given the nature of their business. But the sexually transmitted disease is a threat not only to the adult entertainment industry: There’s a resurgence of syphilis worldwide – and Canada is no exception.
Cases of syphilis across the country have risen dramatically over the past two decades, spiking to more than 1,750 in 2010, up from 177 in 1993, the most recent statistics show. Other sexually transmitted diseases, notably chlamydia and gonorrhea, are also on the rise
“I think it’s just a general indicator of what’s happening in terms of sexual activity,” said Howard Njoo of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“For this particular sexually transmitted infection, the dynamics seem to be slightly different from others like gonorrhea and chlamydia,” said Dr. Njoo, director general of PHAC’s Centre for Communicable Diseases and Infection Control.
“For the other two it seems to be younger individuals. In this case, it tends to be older ones. For example, people age 30 and older accounted for 73 per cent of all the reported cases in 2010,” he said Thursday from Ottawa.
“The other interesting thing is the vast majority of cases are among men compared to women. In 2010, men accounted for 90.5 per cent of all the reported cases.”
Many of those were men who have sex with men, although high-risk groups also include sex-trade workers, injection-drug users and people with multiple sexual partners.
“The fact that we are seeing a resurgence really speaks to the fact that people are vulnerable,” said Vanessa Allen, a medical microbiologist at Public Health Ontario.
“And I think the idea that it is sort of a resolved issue, that it’s not really a problem anymore, I think there’s lots of evidence to show that we really are in an epidemic of syphilis,” said Dr. Allen, who tracks cases of the disease across the province.
“It tends to not get the same attention as other infections because it is treatable. But there are consequences to not identifying it and not treating it.”
Syphilis, caused by the rod-like bacterium Treponema pallidum, has often been called “the great imitator” because many of its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases. But sometimes there are no symptoms at all.
“A lot of the infection, unfortunately, is asymptomatic,” Dr. Allen said.
That means some people, at least, can be unaware they have the infection and can unknowingly spread it to others, she explained, noting that Ontario saw an 11-fold jump overall in the annual rate of cases between 2001 and 2011. For men alone, the increase in cases was 16-fold higher.