Health officials in British Columbia are not dicking around about a syphilis epidemic plaguing their province. No, actually, they are. The BC Centre for Disease control recently launched a campaign using cartoon dick pics of famous historical figures believed to have suffered from the infection to raise public awareness.
"Henry VIII may be history. But syphilis is not," says one of the ads, which features a penis version of the British potentate. Petite pecker versions of Napoleon, Lincoln, Beethoven and Van Gogh make appearances in the "syphistory" campaign, among others. "Capone spent years avoiding the FBI, but he couldn't outrun syphilis," says another ad, featuring a fedora-sporting phallus in a pinstriped suit.
The campaign includes posters, social media, ads on dating and hook-up apps and a website.
They aim, of course, is to encourage men to get tested for the sexually transmitted infection, which is making a major resurgence in the West Coast province as it is elsewhere in North America. "Over the last five years we've been seeing rising incidents of syphilis," says Jason Wong, physician epidemiologist at the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Since 2010, rates in the Canadian province have increased five-fold. In 2015, 760 new cases were confirmed. Last year, there were 759. Last year, Vancouver Coastal Health sounded the syphilis alarm, warning that rates were their highest in 30 years. There were 85 new cases confirmed in just the first six weeks of this year. Ninety per cent of the diagnoses in British Columbia are among men who have sex with men. "That group has really been the group that's been the most disproportionately affected," Wong says.
Syphilis was first recorded among the troops of King Charles VIII of France's as they marched on Naples in 1495. At the outset of the 20th century, according to the BC CDC, an estimated 10 percent of men in Western countries were infected. Then penicillin was discovered as a treatment in the 1940s, and by 1999 doctors felt it could be eliminated in Canada. Last year, the US National Coalition of STD Directors told Congress that rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia were all rising dramatically.
In 2015, for the third year in a row, the group recorded double-digit increases in primary and secondary syphilis in the US. "There was not a single demographic that escaped these increases. Males and females, LGBT persons and heterosexuals, and even newborns experienced increases in syphilis," the directors told lawmakers. From 2012 to 2014 there was a 38 percent jump in cases of congenital syphilis, where the infection is passed to an unborn child from an infected mother.
"Each year there are nearly 20 million new STD cases, approximately half of which go undiagnosed and untreated," the directors reported. "Every year STDs cost the US healthcare system $16 billion. The costs to individuals of untreated STDs can be even more staggering and can include infertility, a higher risk of acquiring HIV, and certain cancers."
Health officials are still trying to understand why syphilis is making such a comeback and why, in British Columbia, it's predominantly among men who have sex with men. "I think the most prominent theory out there is that changes in behavior are leading to syphilis," Wong says. This could be the result of available treatment for HIV (which may be reducing rates of condom use) and advances in preventing the disease. "People are not using condoms as much as they were before and so that is leading to resurgences of other sexually transmitted infections, like syphilis and gonorrhea," Wong says.
Other theories are that the strain of syphilis currently making the rounds may be particularly virulent or that syphilis may be cyclical, ebbing and flowing in a natural pattern. In BC, men 40 to 59 are the group most affected, but there has been a noticeable increase in infections among young men 20 to 24, Wong says. And that's a particular shame. "We live in an age today where HIV treatment is very good. There are lots of new modalities for prevention of STIs and HIV and this is a generation that potentially could live without any sexually transmitted infections," Wong says.
Reaction to the dick pic campaign has been positive, he says. Website traffic is up and it has certainly generated some attention, which helps. "I think a lot of people really appreciate the humor in the campaign," he says. "I think it's spurred some interest."