February 25, 2004
Last year, Toronto's board of health reported 279 people infected with syphilis, the highest number of cases in more than 12 years. In 2002, that number was 195 and in 2001, only 31 people were diagnosed with syphilis.
More than a third of people newly infected are coinfected with HIV, making the blood test to diagnose syphilis harder to read and allowing the disease to progress more rapidly. Symptoms of the disease, such as damage to the eyes or brain, that typically show up in untreated patients 30 years later are showing up within a few months in HIV patients, said Shahin.
About 85 percent of those who got syphilis last year believe they contracted it through sex without a condom. An AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) survey found that some men decline to use condoms because of substance abuse problems, relationship breakdowns, or feeling as though they cannot demand safe sex from partners. Public health, along with ACT and Hassle Free Clinic, continue an education campaign -- modeled after a UK program -- urging people at risk to get tested for syphilis. Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa are also using a similar campaign to reduce infection rates.