By Adrian Morrow
Once pushed to the brink of eradication in Toronto, the granddaddy of sexually transmitted infections has made a comeback. According to Toronto Public Health, syphilis, which has been around at least since the 15th century, has seen a dramatic resurgence in Toronto and other major cities since 2002.
“We’re not sure exactly why it happened,” says Lyba Spring, a sexual health educator with Toronto Public Health. She said it came up in large urban centres, particularly among gay men.
The first major syphilis outbreak began in Naples in the 1490s and spread rapidly over Europe, inflicting sores, rashes and dementia upon thousands of people.
It remained a common disease over several centuries, infecting people as diverse as Vincent Van Gogh and Al Capone, consigning many sufferers to special hospitals and insane asylums.
Many bizarre treatments were tried, including applying mercury to the body, taking arsenic and even getting infected with malaria in hopes that the high fever would ward off the infection. With the invention of penicillin, doctors finally found a sure-fire way to kill the disease, and the syph began to decline — until just a few years ago.
The disease re-emerged mostly in men who were having sex with multiple male partners, often anonymously, says Spring. The precaution she suggests is intuitive: just wrap the package.
“For sure, you need to use condoms,” she says, adding that the infection is often transmitted through oral sex.
The disease manifests in three stages, Spring explains.
In the first two stages, painless ulcers and then rashes appear on various parts of the body, disappearing after a few weeks.
After a period of several months or even years, the third stage of syphilis begins, as the disease begins to damage internal organs.
Bones become weaker, joints ache and dementia can set in. If it’s not cured, syphilis can eventually kill – just ask Spring.
“The big message is if you’re not having protected sex 100 per cent of the time, get checked,” she says. It’s free to get tested and treated, and it’s confidential. The Public Health hotline, 416-392-2437, will help you locate the clinic nearest you.
The Ryerson Health Centre, located at 181 Kerr Hall West provides free condoms, confidential STI testing and consultations with a doctor, says Melissa Matton, health promotion nurse at Ryerson. It’s free for students with an OHIP card or Ryerson plan.
“If you know how to protect yourself and have safer sex, your risk of getting an STI goes way down,” Matton says.
Nearby, the Hassle Free Clinic, located across the street from Ryerson at 66 Gerard St. East on the second floor, offers confidential testing, counselling and treatment in separate clinics for men and women.